Bening shines in latest effort
By Lady Liberty
Running With Scissors
*** out of ****
I've wanted to see Running With Scissors since I saw the first quirky trailers. I only became more determined when the first positive reviews started coming in. This weekend, I finally got the chance to travel to a nearby big city where it was showing. A friend and I were both in the mood for a comedy, and we thought Running With Scissors would fill the bill. As it happens, the movie wasn't as funny as I thought it would be (though it had a couple of scenes that had my friend and me doubled over and with tears streaming down our cheeks). It was, however, even better.
Young Augusten Burroughs (beautifully played as a six year-old by newcomer Jack Kaeding) is bizarrely adult in his behavior. That's doubtless thanks to the fact that his father, Norman Burroughs (Alec Baldwin) is an alcoholic who all too frequently leaves young Augusten on his own with his eccentric mother, Deirdre (Annette Bening). Deirdre is needy at best. She's convinced that she's a poet of great talent who's destined to become a famous and much-beloved icon of the literary set. Her mediocre talents don't dissuade her, and her little boy's glowing reviews prop her up.
Over the years, Augusten (played as a teenager by Joseph Cross) somehow maintains some semblance of normalcy. Thanks in part to his mother's interests, he's exceedingly literate despite the fact he skips school whenever possible. He has a few little quirks of his own (money laundering among them — you'll see), but in general, he's a surprisingly whole. Sadly, his home life deteriorates dramatically as his father's drinking escalates and his mother descends deeper into mental illness.
As tunnel-visioned as she can be otherwise, Deirdre isn't completely oblivious to the problems in her marriage or to her own unhappiness. Deirdre gets the name of a counselor from a friend, and she and Norman pay Dr. Finch (Brian Cox) a visit. Unfortunately, Finch can't save the couple's marriage. He can, however, help Deirdre, or so he says. Norman leaves his wife and his son, but Dr. Finch becomes a shoulder for Deirdre to lean on. The doctor shores up his support with a variety of drugs on which Deirdre soon becomes dependent.
Eventually, Deirdre's limited ability to cope is eroded almost entirely. For a host of reasons — not least of which is Deirdre's own self-centeredness — she signs over the guardianship of Augusten to Dr. Finch and his family. Unfortunately for Augusten, the Finch family doesn't provide a much more wholesome family structure for him.
Dr. Finch's wife, Agnes (Jill Clayburgh) snacks on kibble and is less than organized in her housekeeping (I'm trying to be kind here). Eldest daughter Hope (Gwyneth Paltrow) is Daddy's little girl and his helper; she also talks to her cat (I talk to my cats, too, but Hope's cat — appropriately named Freud — talks back). Hope's younger sister, Natalie (Evan Rachel Wood) has problems of her own, most of which involve living in such a dysfunctional household.
Augusten is devastated by his abandonment, but is bolstered a little by Natalie's friendship. When he meets the dangerous but charismatic Neil Bookman (Joseph Fiennes), he temporarily gains an even greater sense of belonging and self-worth. Unfortunately, still more troubles lie in wait for Augusten when Neil is revealed to have secrets of his own, Natalie's devil-may-care demeanor is stripped away, and Dr. Finch exhibits the need for a little counseling of his own. Add to this new relationships for both of his parents and his mother's ongoing descent into psychosis, and you have the recipe for some of the most devastating humor and quirky drama ever to appear on the big screen.
Joseph Cross is a relative newcomer to movies, but you'd never know it. Despite the fact that he acts opposite some very formidable actors — Bening, Clayburgh, and Cox — he never fails to hold his own (Cross is also currently appearing in a small supporting role in the wonderful Flags of Our Fathers, by the way). Brian Cox and Joseph Fiennes are both very good with their many-layered characters. Jill Clayburgh is a joy to watch as she takes the plain and brow-beaten Agnes, and somehow shows us in mere flashes of expression and a few well-chosen words the courage and honor that lies beneath. But the star of this film is Annette Bening.
Bening has given some impressive performances before. Never less than very good, she was absolutely brilliant in the Oscar-winning American Beauty. Believe it or not, she's even better here. It would be easy to hate Deirdre or to pull away from her in fear or disgust. But in Bening's hands, the awful things that Deirdre experiences inspire some sympathy if not always empathy. Her self-delusions are beautifully rendered; her disappointments heart-rending. And when she is lost to reality, she somehow takes us with her and makes us sad for her instead of judgmental. We can't for a moment blame Augusten for pulling away, but we can still feel for Deirdre's helplessness to deal with her own demons.
Director and writer Ryan Murphy is best known for his award-winning work on television's Nip/Tuck. He could have chosen many much simpler books to adapt, and certainly selected an easier film to make for his major motion picture directorial debut. And yet I can't now imagine anybody else fulfilling either role. I've not read the book Augusten Burroughs wrote about his childhood, but those who have say the film is a faithful adaptation (Burroughs himself was involved throughout the filming and has publicly lauded the accuracy of the depiction). Regardless, the direction was superb; the edits were oftentimes inspired; and the sets were nothing short of superlative.
The only thing I find more impressive than Bening's performance or Murphy's direction is Mr. Burroughs' real life. I can complain about my overbearing mother or about my childhood disappointments; you can tell me about your distant father or how your parents' divorce wounded you. But nothing we've dealt with comes remotely close to what Augusten Burroughs lived through — and not only survived, but survived to exorcise in such a constructive, educational, and yes, entertaining way. Good for him! And with this film, good for movie lovers everywhere.
FAMILY SUITABILITY: Running With Scissors is rated R for "strong language and elements of sexuality, violence and substance abuse." That rating is probably just about right. The subject matter alone requires some maturity to really understand, and the execution is matter-of-fact and thus not always pretty. The bluntness of some scenes is inappropriate for young viewers as is the language, and the "elements of sexuality" referenced by the MPAA are also sufficiently adult in nature that I'd discourage you from allowing those of say, 15 or under from seeing this movie. But for everyone else who loves well-crafted films or who has an interest in seeing a truly astounding personal memoir, Running With Scissors will prove a prime example of both.
Lady Liberty, a senior writer for ESR, is a graphic designer and pro-freedom activist currently residing in the Midwest. More of her writings and other political and educational information is available on her web site, Lady Liberty's Constitution Clearing House, at http://www.ladylibrty.com. E-mail Lady Liberty at firstname.lastname@example.org.