If not for having been based on the 2002 memoir by Augusten Burroughs, "Running with Scissors" would be too far-fetched to be believed. The basic arc of the filmthe coming-of-age of a gay teenage boy in the face of a deadbeat father, an overly medicated and depressed mother, and an adopted family of wacky eccentricsis decidedly conventional, but the details of its characters and the smattering of random events that help to shape the protagonist's journey specifically feel autobiographical and one-of-a-kind. The movie, too, walks a fine line between being too offbeat by a half and not knowing whether to go for laughs or tragedy, but writer-director Ryan Murphy reigns things in nicely so that there is comfortable room for all of the above.
As a young child, Augusten Burroughs' (Jack Kaeding) whole world revolved around his mother Deirdre (Annette Bening), an aspiring poet who would read her new writings to him, value his opinion, and look at every rejection letter as one step closer to getting her poems in the New Yorker
. Now thirteen, Augusten's (Joseph Cross) view of his mother comes crashing down when, during a pill-induced state of collapse, she abruptly abandons him at the ramshackle home of psychiatrist Dr. Finch (Brian Cox).
Dr. Finch has some questionable methods in counseling patientsmostly, he just shuffles them away with a bottle of pillsand is just as questionable in his raising of a family who are at the mercy of his madness. Unhappy wife Agnes (Jill Clayburgh) watches reruns of "Dark Shadows" and eats dog kibble while dreaming of a different life. Eldest daughter Hope (Gwyneth Paltrow), Dr. Finch's self-proclaimed favorite, uses her Bible like a normal person would use a magic 8 ball. And self-deprecating teenage daughter Natalie (Evan Rachel Wood) is torn between the oddball lifestyle she has always known and a chance to possibly flee from them all and go to college. Stuck in the middle is Augusten, who embarks on his first sexual relationship with the Finchs' schizophrenic 35-year-old "adopted" son Neil Bookman (Joseph Fiennes) and begins writing a journal built out of the anger and resentment he has over his unfortunate lot in life.
Perceptive, sad and witty, "Running with Scissors" follows the unanticipated sharp turns one's life can take in a way that makes its bizarre happenings feel authentic. Yes, there are self-contained moments where the film flirts with becoming too cute and pleased with itselfa scene in which Dr. Finch excitedly wakes up his family to show them a stool in the toilet that he believes is a sign from God would pass for thisbut even these instances of extreme idiosyncratic behavior could only really be dreamt up by someone who has experienced them first-hand. Meanwhile, characters that begin as typesthe entire dysfunctional Finch clangrow to become either three-dimensional people by the end, or at least human beings whose actions are understandable and whom one can tell where they are coming from.
For the most part, the picture strikes some heavy and painful chords, many of them involving Deirdre's psychological (and physiologically altered) downfall and her despicable treatment of Augusten, all the while still exhibiting an acidic sense of humor around the edges. Augusten's friendship with Natalie, at first tentative until they bond over their shared sense of entrapment, creeps up on the viewer until it culminates in a quietly touching scene over the telephone. Likewise, Agnes comes to look at Augusten as her son, in the process escaping her kooky caricaturization for someone with much more going on inside than meets the eye. With less screen time, Hope remains only partially formed, but the soul of who she isa misunderstood outsider and an unknowing victim of her own upbringingis certainly clear.
Once it is accepted that 20-year-old Joseph Cross (2006's "Flags of Our Fathers
") is a bit long in the tooth to be playing a character who goes to junior high school, the actor's virtues shine through. Cross is sympathetic and something of a hero as Augusten, who endures more than any teenager should and yet keeps a considerably even-keeled head on his shoulders. He is especially adept in the scenes where he sees his mother for who she isa lonely, drugged-out failure of a human beinginstead of the wide-eyed dreamer and ideal parent he used to believe her to be. As the difficult Deirdre, Annette Bening (2003's "Open Range
") is astonishing in her strongest role since 1999's "American Beauty
." Bening's character is deeply and incurably flawed, and yet no matter how far off the deep end Deirdre goes, Bening never loses track of the humanity inside her. In an unblemished supporting cast of many, it is the women of the Finch household who stand out with the most memorable of turns: Evan Rachel Wood (2003's "Thirteen
"), as Augusten's sort-of kindred spirit, Natalie, who feels suffocated living in a house with no rules; Jill Clayburgh, as the heartbreaking Agnes; and Gwyneth Paltrow (2006's "Infamous
"), as daffy old maid Hope.
Episodic in nature but saved in this respect by skilled performers who know how to fill in the gaps of time gone by, "Running with Scissors" is a compelling and, from what can be ascertained, faithful adaptation of Augusten Burroughs' best-selling memoir. Spanning much of the 1970s ('72 to '79, to be exact), the movie uses recognizable and eclectic music choices from the decade to compliment the narrative. By following Augusten at all times, the viewer is invited to live in his skin for two hours, feel what he feels, and be thankful that, like the author and lead character, there will be a chance for escape at the end. "Running with Scissors" couldn't have been easy to translate to the camerawhat is charmingly strange in writing can sometimes be cloying and ridiculous on filmbut director Ryan Murphy and his top-flight cast have overcome this obstacle with irreverance. These characters on display may be unlike anyone else in the world, but that doesn't make them any less miraculous, relatable, and messily humane.