Bright Lights Film Journal

Bad Manners (Jonathan Kaufer, 1997)

Watch out for that “placid surface.”

Movies based on plays don’t always fare well in the transition. There’s a double danger here: slavishly recreating the “stage experience” in its often talky entirety can deaden a film and drive away audiences; over-cinematizing a play by moving everything outdoors and adding lots of angles and cuts can kill that all-important sense of intimacy. Jonathan Kaufer’s movie adaptation of David Gilman’s play Ghost in the Machine wisely avoids both these traps. Bad Manners (1997) betrays its stage origins in the best possible way, with a witty, disturbing script and an ensemble of superb performances, but there’s enough visual variety to make it work nicely as a film.

The story pits a quartet of intelligent but self-deluded academics against each other in what’s supposed to be a relaxing reunion of some old friends. Wes (David Straithairn) is a cynical, lecherous professor of religion bored by his marriage to sweet, sad Nancy (Bonnie Bedelia). Their relationship is strained by the arrival of Nancy’s old boyfriend Matt (Saul Rubinek) and his girlfriend Kim (Caroleen Feeney), a seductive and possibly deranged computer whiz. Matt, like Nancy, is a musicologist; in a conceit the film works to great comic effect, the pretentious Matt believes he’s discovered a musical miracle: the inexplicable appearance of a snippet of a medieval hymn into a random computer-generated composition by one “Minh Schumann.”

Meanwhile, Kim encourages Nancy to start screwing her students; Wes makes disturbing jokes about having testicular cancer; Matt tries to convince his peers he’s not a liar; Kim tempts wavering Wes with her nubile charms; and Wes convinces Nancy that Kim is a thief who’s stolen fifty dollars from him. This is a key development, the kind of small, nagging detail that escalates into an absurd but always subterranean battle of wills. The film becomes a suffocating web of unanswered questions, with the characters’ real motives — and indeed key plot points — always tantalizingly out of reach. This film might have been called Secrets and Lies — there seem to be plenty of both in all these characters — if Mike Leigh hadn’t gotten there first.

Bad Manners has obvious (and acknowledged) similarities to Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? As in the earlier film, the central characters of Bad Manners are two academic couples who flirt, fight, and perhaps fuck their way through a torturous few days. In keeping with the ’90s mood that prefers civilized despair to violent histrionics, though, Bad Manners forsakes George and Martha-style scream- and slugfests in favor of slow burns, quietly vicious dialogue, and an implication that under every placid surface is chaos waiting to erupt.