Weekly Wire
Austin Chronicle Bad Manners

By Russell Smith

FEBRUARY 8, 1999: 

D: Jonathan Kaufer; with David Straithairn, Carolyn Feeney, Bonnie Bedelia, Saul Rubinek. (R, 88 min.)

What is it about comfy white-bread domesticity that brings out the schoolyard bully in otherwise mild-mannered playwrights? From Edward Albee (Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?) to Tom Noonan (Wifey) to David Gilman, whose play is the basis for Bad Manners, they all seem to burn as one with the urge to administer satiric wedgies to those who appear just a bit too smug and toasty in their tranquil Sears Homelife Collection lives. Surprisingly enough, these point-blank potshots often hit home in ways that yield not only important plays but successful movie adaptations. Jonathan Kaufer's dark-hearted, corrosively funny film extends that tradition by retaining the crucial passages of Gilman's idea-rich dialogue while flavoring the dramatic broth with enhanced elements of suspense that keep things from tasting too chalky and academic. Like many of its antecedents, Bad Manners delights in dragging its bland, respectable Volvo People into escalating rounds of psychosexually warped game-playing that reveal them for the perverse sickos they really are. In this case, the participants are a married couple of college professors, Nancy and Wes (Bedelia and Straithairn), and their houseguests, Kim and Matt (Feeney and Rubinek), a comparably white and upwardly mobile academic pair. The visitors are in town so Matt -- who happens to be Nancy's old college boyfriend -- can pitch his startling research findings to a local musicology journal. Matt's bombshell discovery has to do with a computer program, co-written by Kim -- that generates musical scores with no human help. In the midst of one of these supposedly random passages there appears mysteriously a bar or two from Martin Luther's hymn "A Mighty Fortress Is Our God." Is this a random accident or a clean impression of His divine footprint on Matt's digital sidewalk? Or is it, as Wes suspects, a joke played on pompous, self-obsessed Matt by Kim, a seductive game-theory researcher who delights in pulling men's legs (and other appendages) and in fomenting psychic chaos for fun and clinical interest? As you might imagine, this tinderbox of lust, intellectual hubris, and emotional sadism is just one spark away from going up in flames -- and everybody inside is holding a propane torch. Bad Manners, like so many of the plays and films upon which it's modeled, is compulsively watchable because it offers such a heady mixture of visceral and cerebral stimulation. There's the malicious thrill of seeing corduroy-clad suburban milquetoasts go primal before our eyes, but also the redeeming pleasure of powerful ideas to contemplate. Though not nearly as histrionic as the Burton-Taylor Virginia Woolf film, Bad Manners is a worthy heir to its tradition. Credit is due largely to the intrinsic strengths of Gilman's writing (he did the screenplay in consultation with Kaufer), but also to Kaufer's muscular, economical direction and the overall excellence of the cast. Feeney and Bedelia, in particular, stand out -- Feeney as the devious provocateur and Bedelia as the incidental beneficiary of her terroristic acts. If you're the kind of sick pup who found Happiness not only meritorious but deeply pleasurable, this one's for you.
3.5 stars

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