November 2, 2006

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Running with Scissors (R)
Annette Bening is the crazy center of a silly whirlpool of mental illness and flagrant abdication of adult responsibility in Running with Scissors, a movie both campy and sad.

Augusten (Jack Kaeding), age 6, worships his mother, who is convinced and has convinced him that she is destined for great things. Deirdre (Annette Bening) believes she is a great writer, one just moments away from discovery. She shakes little Augusten awake so she can read him some of her maudlin poetry. Augusten — a boy who boils his allowance of quarters and then polishes them with silver because he likes shiny things — doesn’t see the self-absorption and self-delusion that has so clouded his mother’s mind. He sees her as one of those shiny things. Weary paterfamilias Norman (Alec Baldwin), meanwhile, only sees a family he doesn’t understand.When Augusten (Joseph Cotton) is about 14, he’s just as enamored with his mother even if he’s a bit more jaded about her belief that Norman is “oppressing” her and always on the verge of violent attack. Deirdre is thick in some kind of breakdown that appears to be more about creating drama than actual illness when she meets Dr. Finch (Brian Cox). He tells her that she is indeed great, that Norman is indeed oppressive and that the only chance they have of saving their marriage is if they commit to five hours of therapy a day. Norman takes this as his cue to leave, kissing his son on the head and gently severing all ties between them.

Left alone with his mother, Augusten indulges her fantasies about her freedom and sure-to-come artistic revelation until she takes him to the Finch household and informs him that he has to stay. Augusten is, naturally, horrified. The house, from the outside, screams to the world that the Finch family is unwell. A chipping pink exterior and a junk-filled lawn gives way to a trashed and rotting interior. Finch’s wife Agnes (Jill Clayburgh) haunts this crumbling mansion like a post-traumatic stress victim. His daughter Hope (Gwyneth Paltrow) seems to be auditioning for the role of an old maid in a gothic novel (one who just might serve the family the pet cat in a stew). Younger daughter Natalie (Evan Rachel Wood) is scarred and bitter even through she’s about Augusten’s age and seems just a few years shy of the detox program she will inevitably end up in. She, like Augusten, craves normality and is furious that none of the adults around her provide it. Dr. Finch seems to encourage inappropriate behavior in everyone around him, whether it’s openly telling Hope she is his favorite daughter or not warning Augusten away from his relationship with a thirtysomething psychotic (Joseph Fiennes) who is Finch’s patient and adopted son.

With every new demonstration of the Finch family’s looneyness and every competing example of his mother’s insanity (she eventually allows Augusten to be adopted by the Finches), Augusten seems even more determined to find a way out. When the Finches are all called into the bathroom one morning to look at one of the doctor’s, er, movements and marvel at the message it sends them from God, Augusten and Natalie share in the misery of children who find themselves the most mature and sane members of their families.

Running with Scissors is full of such scenes of dark humor and deep sadness. But the material is clumsily handled. What should have been poignant feels campy. Bening’s performance, another iteration of the same woman-over-the-edge she’s been playing for years, is too big to capture any subtlety. We know Augusten is miserable because he tells us, repeatedly. We rarely see the depth of his misery played out in any of his actions. The more disturbing the story gets, the more it pulls back and plays scenes for laughs, as if to blur or hide the darker, more painful stuff even from the audience. Deirdre’s actions and her willingness to hand over her son caused great turmoil in his life — comic scenes played for the people in the room instead of the people at the back of the theater would have conveyed this better. Instead, like Alec Baldwin’s character, we quickly tire of all this commotion and are relieved when we can walk away. C

Rated R for strong language and elements of sexuality, violence and substance abuse and for, I’m guessing, an extended scene centered around poop. Directed and written by Ryan Murphy (from the memoir of the same name by Augusten Burroughs), Running with Scissors is about two hours long and is distributed by TriStar Pictures in wide release.

— Amy Diaz