“Bad Manners” is a smart, snappy, well-acted film adaptation of a flawed but engaging short play. While still bearing the earmarks of its legit source, the work takes on a life of its own onscreen thanks to the efforts of a first-rate cast and nuanced direction. Pic has an outside chance of some specialized theatrical success with careful handling by a small distrib and backed by good reviews, but would also play well as a class cable offering prior to vid release.
Adapted by David Gilman from his own one-act play “Ghost in the Machine,” which debuted at Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theater Company in 1993 and was staged Off Broadway the following year, film marks the second feature by director Jonathan Kaufer after a 15-year gap since his initial outing, the promising “Soup for One.” New effort is modest in scale, but would seem to realize completely the potential of its source material.
Exposition-laden opening reel establishes the somewhat brittle relationship between married Cambridge, Mass., academics Wes (David Strathairn) and Nancy (Bonnie Bedelia), who are sliding quickly into childless middle age. Wes is in a particularly sour state after having been denied tenure at a girls’ finishing school, where he teaches comparative religion, and now has to face a few days hosting Nancy’s long-ago lover Matt (Saul Rubinek), a pretentious musicologist who’s in town to deliver a lecture at Harvard. Matt arrives with his young flame, the sexually provocative Kim (Caroleen Feeney).
A computer whiz, Kim was instrumental in locating a theologically significant quotation from a 15th-century musical composition in the work of a contemporary Vietnamese composer, and Matt is consumed with the importance of this discovery, which he hopes to parlay into a reputation-making breakthrough for himself.
But what triggers escalating rounds of intrigue, suspicion, mistrust and sexual tension is Kim’s apparent theft of $50 from Wes. He and Nancy play their own games in retaliation, and the teasing Kim ups the ante by telling Nancy that she should think about having affairs with younger men and goading Wes to come on to her.
Once all the characters and situations are in place, pic gets in a groove and begins gathering momentum. Main questions hover over Kim, as the writer deliberately avoids answering the questions of whether she stole the $50, planted the quotation in the music or helped make an adulterer out of Wes. As Kim is the one calling most of the shots here, she becomes the first among four equals in terms of dramatic importance, and Feeney (“Denise Calls Up”) makes the most of the opportunity, snapping out the upbraiding one-liners like a screen queen of yore and oozing sexual aggressiveness like a Sharon Stone of academe.
But each of the thesps gets a chance to shine with Gilman’s polished dialogue. Strathairn’s disgruntled teacher will assert himself only when tremendously provoked, and the actor’s performance is an expertly modulated slow burn that takes the entire picture to ignite fully. Similarly, Bedelia’s Nancy is almost sleepwalking at first, needing to be shaken out of her emotional complacency by the challenge presented by the young sexpot, and the actress brings Nancy credibly to life. Rubinek, who starred in “Soup for One,” would seem to rep offbeat casting as the arrogant Matt, and after expressing virtually undiluted ego for an hour, the actor strongly registers the man’s wounded vanity and consequent rage in the wake of his comeuppance.
Aside from its somewhat labored exposition, play suffers from the hackneyed reliance upon great alcohol intake to spur the characters to self-revelation, and from an emotional situation that grows so uncomfortable that one can scarcely believe that the house guests aren’t asked to vacate the premises at some point.
But the dramatic situations are loaded, the repartee sharp and the roles juicy enough to keep the viewer interested, resulting in a legit adaptation that’s notably above par overall.