Roman Polanski returns to New York—sort of—for this adaptation of Yasmina Reza’s successful four-character play, a cheerfully nasty much-shortened version of “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” that takes aim on the fragility of civility in matrimonial and societal relationships. “Carnage” is amusing but slight, and with a cast that only partially takes advantage of its strengths in verbal jousting.

The event that literally sets the stage for the pyrotechnics is one of only two outside sequences in the picture, in which we see a boy strike another with a stick in a playground. That leads to their parents—Penelope and Michael Longstreet (Jodie Foster and John C. Reilly), whose son was injured, and Nancy and Alan Cowen (Kate Winslet and Christoph Waltz), whose boy was the aggressor—meeting in the Longstreet’s apartment to resolve the situation as amicably as possible. Of course, the veneer of civility that initially marks the episode is soon stripped away, leading not only to acrimonious confrontations between the two couples but to bitter disputes between husbands and wives as well.

“Carnage”—which originally was called “God of Carnage”—hasn’t really been opened up for the screen to any extent. It remains basically a filmed play despite the efforts of Polanski and cinematographer Pawel Edelman to give it some cinematic punch with nimble camera moves and varying perspectives designed to make it feel less stagebound. Polanski is adept at using confined space to good advantage, of course, and he’s worked to good effect with similarly focused material before—in 1994’s “Death and the Maiden” in particular. But even his skill can’t conceal the piece’s spatial limitations.

Nor does he overcome its quintessentially theatrical structure and style. The sort of clever but minor material that can work on stage too often reveals its shallowness on screen, but that’s certainly the case here. Reza’s play aimed to reveal how thin the veneer of civilization is, and how virulent the bigotry, pettiness and contempt of others that lie just beneath the skin of culture and tolerance. It’s a message that theatergoers, especially in sophisticated cities, are apt to embrace automatically, and are also disposed to accept being disclosed within the short span of a play, as incessantly witty repartee strips away the characters’ pretenses and forces them to show their true colors on demand, as it were.
But film exposes the synthetic nature of the artifice; it demands at least a touch of naturalism, and here the only particle of it lies in the playground scene at the beginning and another at the close, where the two boys easily overcome their differences—a stark contrast, of course, to the opposite trajectory among their elders, where the illusion of amity turns into enmity instead.

It doesn’t help the film that only half the cast seem in tune with the material. The men are having a good time, with Reilly nicely handling the role of the genial peacemaker who turns nasty and Waltz oozing snide charisma as the smug attorney more interested in quashing a negative news report about one of his clients—a pharmaceutical company—that in addressing the issues involving his son. (The business with his incessant cell phone conversations will strike home with anyone who detests those ever-intrusive devices.) But the women never find quite the right tone. Winslet is better, managing to catch at least some of Nancy’s vulnerability behind the cool façade. But Foster’s intensity comes across as too shrill for this thin piece; her outbursts imbalance the verbal gamesmanship badly.

Thanks to the efforts of cast and crew, “Carnage” is enjoyable enough on the surface, but it’s essentially meretricious—so much, in fact, that you’ll be a bit ashamed at having had a fairly good time watching it.