When 11 year old Zachary Cowan hit classmate Ethan Longstreet round the head with a stick, he can have had little idea of the monster he had unleashed.

Two sets of parents meet in the Longstreet’s New York City apartment to discuss the incident between their sons as civilised and decent human beings. Tulips have been bought, something called a cobbler has been baked and reason itself reigns as they decide by mutual agreement that Zachary was not ‘armed’ with a stick, he was simply ‘carrying’ a stick. And then all hell breaks loose.

The problem is that all four people hate each other, not just the opposing set of parents but also the opposing partners. Africa-loving, art-hugging Penelope Longstreet (Jodie Foster) has married a pots and pans salesman, Michael (John C Reilly) whom, we learn, has just murdered his kids’ pet hamster. The reason being that ‘he hates those things’. Meanwhile polished and preened Nancy Cowan (Kate Winslet) is wed to lawyer Alan (Christoph Waltz), a complete smartarse whose ear is hermetically sealed to his Blackberry. As the parents discuss the possible reasons for the fight between their sons, the repercussions and the ways to resolve the animosity between the boys, it soon becomes painfully apparent that if these four adults had sticks they’d be swinging them at each others’ heads in a jiffy.

All the situation needs is a catalyst for the God of Carnage to be let loose and peaceful serenity battered to death. This catalyst is provided by the cobbler which makes Nancy throw up all over Penelope’s beloved artbooks in a scene that also breaks the ice in the cinema. The shock and laughter that the audience feels at this spectacular scene means that from then on we are cheering along each of the four protagonists as they take it in turns to triumph with insults. It doesn’t help that Michael produces an 18-year-old single malt. With all four stroppy and now drunk as well, not even the tulips imported directly from Holland are safe, as we see man vs man, woman vs woman, husband vs wife and man vs woman in a succession of bloody and hilarious bouts. At times, Nancy and Alan almost leave the apartment but they just can’t manage it.

The film, based on the play God of Carnage by Yasmina Reza and directed by Roman Polanski, entirely takes place within the apartment (bar the opening and closing scenes) and the film depends solely on the talent and chemistry of its four actors, two of whom also have to pull off believable American accents. Christoph Waltz has by far the best one-liners but it would be difficult to choose a winner from amongst these four. The to-and-fro of the arguments, interlaced with niceties (John C Reilly spends a considerable amount of the film trying to dry things with a hairdryer) and hysteria, allows each to shine but my money would be on Jodie Foster. However much she tries to hang on to the veneer of culture, once she’s had a drink or two, you know she’s not too many steps away from killing her hamster-hating husband.

I was surprised to find that these eighty minutes of four people arguing and trying not to argue all at the same time were extremely entertaining, not least because here are four actors who know exactly what they’re doing. It is hugely enjoyable to watch such talented actors working with a funny, clever and generous script. Certainly, by the end of the eighty minutes, the stick incident seems like a piece of cake by comparison with what their parents would like to do to one another.

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