When Alan Cowan’s cell phone vibrates, everything stops, or at least on the surface. Eyes still twitch and appendages fidget, and Alan doesn’t forget whose company he’s in. We wouldn’t want to be rude.

Yet the never ending, subtle anxieties nagging us in social situations, like wanting to drop Alan’s cell phone in a flower pot, make Roman Polanski’s “Carnage” so devilishly enticing. “Carnage” makes the compulsion to be rude immensely enjoyable.

Polanski’s 79-minute nugget of a film is based on Yasmina Reza’s play (she co-wrote the screenplay with Polanski) “Le Dieu du carnage.” It was “God of Carnage” on Broadway while I was in New York, and it starred James Gandolfini, Marcia Gay Harden, Jeff Daniels and Hope Davis. I didn’t get to see that version, so I was thrilled when I heard it was being made into a movie with a cast I admire even more.

Kate Winslet, Christoph Waltz, Jodie Foster and John C. Reilly play two married couples discussing what to do following Winslet and Waltz’s son attacking Foster and Reilly’s son with a stick. It’s a dark and dryly funny character study of society, civility and judgmental human nature in Western culture.

The families are on edge from the beginning, choosing their words carefully but making their honesty heard.

Michael and Penelope Longstreet (Reilly and Foster) are parents who know best; they have a belief for everything and a blind right to exact justice and understanding for their children. Alan and Nancy Cowan (Waltz and Winslet) are wealthy, busy and intelligent; they disagree but hold their tongues and condescend in private.

This is true at least for awhile, and although there’s a clear sense of how compelling this one-room drama could be on stage, Polanski’s camera show us the finer nuances in these characters’ social awkwardness. He carefully frames each at a variety of lengths and paired with a different partner, so what remains interesting is all that is not being said, the wonderful acting being done when they are not the center of attention and how the screenplay remains nimble and complex to allow changing allegiances.

If in its brief running time “Carnage” devolves to childish bickering too quickly, it’s a forgivable sin because of its naturalism. Perhaps unlike “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?”, to which it is often compared, “Carnage” is never strictly goofy or morose and never heavy or frivolous. It doesn’t monologue profound social philosophies and it doesn’t take sides.

“Carnage” is a balanced and delicate character drama that never stops spinning its tiny gears, even if a phone call interrupts it.

3 ½ stars


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