One From the Gross-Out School
Bad Manners Directed by Bobby Houston At the Nickelodeon
GOING to the movies alone and needing to buy acne medicine were two nightmares just one baby-step inside the walk-in closet of adolescent fears. Try vainly to see the UHS dermatogist for the second, out if Saturday night finds you alone and without the mental stamina to distinguish formulation two of Kant's categorical Imperative from formulation three, then see Bad Manners, a sometimes tacky, sometimes funny, sometimes tasteless, but nearly always funny flick.
A kind of Oliver Twist-flavored Hollywood punk, Piper (George Olden) does not like the Bleeding purportedly Catholic orphanage run by the sadistic Sister Serena (Ann De Salvo). Twentieth-century America being the breadbasket of the world and all, Piper has enough food--so much so that he uses the mashed potatoes as an ashtray-but lacks the respect accorded even laboratory test animals.
Less an orphanage than a prison the Sacred Heart likely doesn't use Dr. Spock as a consultant. Piper won't eat his food, will he? Forget what Dr. Joyce Brothers and Donahue say, and get ever-resourceful disciplinarian Mr. Kurtz (Murphy Dunne). Wielding a Duracell-powered cattle-prod, Dunne drives the kids into the meditation room, a meat freezer with carcasses as wall décor. There, Piper meets his fellow prisoners: Mouse (Michael Hentz), Whitey (Joey Coleman), Blackie (Christopher Brown,) and Joey (Pamela Segall).
Everyone wants out, but only Piper seems to know the land beyond the electric fence and barbed wire. Back in the meditation room after Piper's first attempted break, the four become blood brothers the old-fashioned way, each cutting a finger and letting the blood mix with all. "That's corny," says one. "Real blood in never corny." Piper shouts back.
Now that sounds corny, but somehow Olden makes Piper genuine and likeable. Even pulling is knife or punching out his shrink, Olden looks more troubled and pensive than simply angry and resentful. Too young and too untouched by the Francis Ford Coppola idol maker crowd to play the latest Matt Dillon or Poster of the Week, Olden acts and acts well.
HIS fellow stars, who never approach his level, keep us from taking Bad Manners too seriously. Evidently unaware of the R rating, writers Houston and Kwong seem intent on making another Porky's II or Meatballs II without offering any first feature to establish characters or situations. In the Bleeding Heart, the kids really walk and talk like kids, albeit somewhat obnoxious kids, but taste sometimes get pushed aside by desperate lunges for the cheap laugh, as in, "What's that smell coming out of your sleeping bag?" At times funny, the gross-out school gets simply disgusting at times: contrary to unpopular opinion, explicit vomit scenes aren't cute.
As "Our Gang" faces separation, the one threat to its survival, the film becomes uncomfortably uneven. With all the tackiness represented by the taxi cab Yellow Mercedes, Santa Barbara suburbanites Gladys and Warren Fitzpatrick (Karen Black and Martin Mull) come to buy a child from the Sacred Heart. "We tried a dog." Exuding the charm of a used car salesman and the taste of John Rivers, Sister Serena markets her "kids" like a Romco television ad. "How about a conversation piece?" she asks, singling out her single Black charge. "Something South of the Border?" Our caricatured Ozzie and Harriet demur. "We already have a gardener." Finally they take Mouse, and Piper in short order leads what has become by now his gang in a reunion-bound break from the Bleeding Heart.
Mouse meets the Fitzpatricks in Santa Barbara, complete with their Samurai-warrior fashioned son, and we meet the end of any attempt at quality. With some real acting and more subtle directing and dialogue, the Fitzpatricks could make Bad Manners a riskier Risky Business. They could, but they don't.
Wide-lawned narrow-minded suburbia parodies itself well enough without help from mediocre attempts at satire. As the prototypical Valley Girl, Sarah Fitzpatrick plays a girl we can all hate, but that no one knows. Mouse? Grody. "His hair is so 70s." Would you believe Mrs. Fitzpatrick values material things? "God, I love being rich."
After enough of this, Olden seems almost too disgusted to go on. At the nadir of the film, Piper and company tie Valley Girl to a piano and make some allusions to rape. An R rating may be worth a lot in extra ticket sales; it's not worth this.
Even with its frequent sight gags and sometimes offensive humor, Bad Manners offers a glimpse into an American childhood world the "Brady Bunch" et al wouldn't even allow in their outtakes. Still, the humor that might make Bad Manners more than just a fun night out with yourself disappoints in the end. Filmed in under backing, it sports an uneven quality peculiar to low-budget Hollywood. If Bobby Houston follows through with plans to offer a second with a larger budget, Bad Manners II could retain its humor and develop into the better movie it often hints at. But then you'd probably have to take someone along to see that movie.