RUNNING WITH SCISSORSR
In this era of the breaking of James Frey and his Million Little Pieces, you'd be forgiven for questioning the veracity of Augusten Burroughs' best-selling memoir, Running with Scissors. Its zany depiction of an extremely bizarre childhood makes you wonder how Burroughs (the onetime Christopher Robison) survived with his sanity intact, much less became one of today's most popular humor writers. However much Burroughs may have embellished his traumatic past, both the book and its new movie adaptation make for undeniably witty entertainment, a comic salve for the pain caused by his mismatched parents and their shipwreck of a marriage.
The feature directing debut of "Nip/Tuck" creator Ryan Murphy, Running with Scissors begins in 1972 with the six-year-old Augusten (Jack Kaeding), worshipping at the throne of his glamorous mother Deirdre (Annette Bening), an unpublished feminist poet with delusions of future acclaim. The precocious Augusten wraps the family dog in silver foil and dreams of being a hairdresser, peculiarities that are barely tolerated by his hard-drinking, volatile father Norman (Alec Baldwin), a university math professor. Six years later, the marriage finally implodes; Norman walks out and the increasingly jittery Deirdre surrenders to the care of her aggressively unorthodox psychiatrist, Dr. Finch (Brian Cox). Under doctor's orders, Deirdre is sent away for treatment, and the 12-year-old Augusten (Joseph Cross) finds himself living in the psychiatrist's madcap, rundown, shocking-pink monstrosity of a house, alongside Dr. Finch's dowdy, dog food-snacking wife Agnes (Jill Clayburgh), Bible-obsessed daughter Hope (Gwyneth Paltrow), sultry and mischievous teenage daughter Natalie (Evan Rachel Wood), and troubled 35-year-old ex-patient and "adopted son," Neil Bookman (Joseph Fiennes).
Even though she likes to play with her father's electroshock apparatus, Natalie evolves into Augusten's best friend, while the unstable Neil takes advantage of the young boy's curiosity and becomes his first sex partner. Deirdre, too, takes on a same-sex lover and sinks deeper and deeper into her drug-addled self-absorption. As Augusten feels increasingly abandoned, he finds an unexpected maternal surrogate in the quietly compassionate Agnes Finch.
Running with Scissors is like a housebound picaresque, moving from one eccentric episode to the next, whether it's Hope's maltreatment of her cat named Freud, Dr. Finch's obsession with bowel movements and troubles with the I.R.S., or Deirdre's increasingly disturbing psychological decline under her so-called physician's care. Murphy's adaptation is bright, lively and fast-paced, but like his plastic-surgery drama "Nip/Tuck," the movie is relentless in its outlandishness. When Agnes comforts Augusten near the close of the story, it feels like an oasis of calm amidst all the tumult and lunacy and constant barrage of '70s pop songs. A few more moments of simple human contact would have made a welcome contrast to the steady parade of dysfunction.
Murphy is fortunate to have a strong cast. As in her Oscar-nominated performance in American Beauty, Bening takes a high-strung, selfish and largely unlikable character and makes her compelling and touchingly vulnerable, without denying her comic absurdity. Young actor Cross handles his big role with effortless charm and comedic timing. Cox embraces Dr. Finch's maniacal methods with hilarious panache, and Wood again proves herself a remarkably self-possessed and alluring young actress. Clayburgh, casting all vanity aside, is the stealth performer here, slowly turning her character from a grotesque into the movie's most tender presence.
Like Augusten Burroughs' perhaps exaggerated life story, Running with Scissors is too much of a wacky thing, but fans of the book and new converts will seldom be bored.