Film >THE PAST ODDLY
For those who still don’t believe truth is stranger than fiction, Running With Scissors may be the ultimate confirmation of that clichéd adage. So much of the film feels so ludicrous and silly that in a fiction screenplay it would be hardly credible — it would be another sub-Solondz autopsy of the dysfunctional suburban family, another sacrifice to the Sundance gods of excessive quirk and detached irony.
But the story is true, says Augusten Burroughs, the author of the best-selling memoir of same name on which the film is based. Like magic, this simple fact eliminates complaints of credulity and turns healthy skepticism into sheer amazement and even horror that Burroughs’ larger-than-life concoctions aren’t even concoctions at all.
Not that the 12-year-old Burroughs himself (played by Strangers With Candy’s Joseph Cross) — an awkward adolescent obsessed with his hair, his mother and polishing coins — is a barometer of normality. Nobody in the film satisfies that need. But he’s the voice of sanity when held up to the family of Dr. Finch (Brian Cox), the psychiatrist his mother Deirdre (Annette Bening) starts seeing after a near-homicidal bout with her antagonistic husband (the suddenly ubiquitous Alec Baldwin, once again playing an asshole like nobody’s business).
Deirdre is a struggling poet trying to make it in the pages of the New Yorker, her sights set on celebrity and the metropolitan high life. She seems to lose a bit more of her mental health with each rejection letter, and Finch brusquely decides she needs an extended departure from Augusten, whom the Finch family adopts for an indeterminate amount of time.
It’s hard to say whom Augusten would be better off with — a mother on a crash course for hospital stretchers and straitjackets or a doctor who has a room called a “masturbatorium” and believes God is speaking through his bowel movements.
Nip/Tuck writer/director Ryan Murphy directed and penned the screenplay, doing a solid job transmitting the complicated tones and textures of Burroughs’ book, if not every detail. Hard-core fans of the memoir — of which there are many — will surely, for instance, have gripes with the casting of Gwyneth Paltrow and Evan Rachel Wood as the introverted and extroverted (respectfully) daughters of eccentric Dr. Finch, since neither looks anything like Burroughs recalled (and then there’s the other Finch offspring, Vicki, who never makes it into the cinematic version).
But Murphy’s colorful visual tableaux seem mined directly from the author’s subconscious, at times even improving on Burroughs’ descriptions. The Finch house, with its vivid, roach-infested kitchen and filthily furnished living room, is a triumph of art direction.
More than anything, Running With Scissors is a showcase for acting. Cox, as born for the role of Dr. Finch as Patrick Stewart was for Professor Xavier, gives the performance of his career, and Bening should be the Best Actress Oscar front-runner, winning our empathy and compassion despite being the World’s Worst Mother.
As in most literary adaptations, it’s nearly impossible to capture all the pleasures of the 300-page tome in a compact, feature-length form, and even at 116 minutes Running With Scissors overstays its welcome in trying to honor the completeness of the book. But the most important quality of the memoir — the ability to compose scenes that are at once hilarious and disturbing, exhilarating and depressing — is here in spades. Enough movies have found the “fun” in dysfunction, but like the similar Royal Tenenbaums, this one concedes that being crazy kinda sucks, too.