Friday, October 27, 2006

Running with Scissors - Movie Review

Running with Scissors 2006

I've given my memoirs far more thought than any of my marriages. You can't divorce a book.” - Gloria Swanson
By now, if you haven’t heard of professional memoirist Augusten Burroughs and his sixty volumes of his personal, intimate self discovery . . . Jesus, ‘Gus, can you wrap it up already – you should be eighty five years old, judging by your output – you will probably not be one of his legion of readers who are queuing up to the box-office to see the major motion picture adaptation of his most famous tome: “Running With Scissors”. The good news is that the cast is chock filled with talented actors who bend over backwards attempting to deliver the goods in this black comedy take on a childhood gone incredibly wrong. The bad news is that their dedication is an exercise in futility.

Augusten Burroughs was the child of woman whose quest for fame and adulation became the starting point for her voyage of self discovery that left no room for her marriage or her child. In an inspired bit of casting, Annette Bening dominates every scene she has portraying this solipsistic buswreck. Young Augusten basks in the glow of his mother who allows him to miss school in order to help do her hair and plan for her poetry readings. The matter of Deirdre Burroughs’ sanity is raised rather early in the film. Is she merely an eccentric personality that came to full flower in the heyday of EST? She is clearly attempting to get in full touch with her anger. But her anger at what? Her cushy lifestyle replete with a home straight out of Elle Décor circa 1976?

Moving on. Which is exactly what young Augusten is forced to do once his parents’ acrimonious marriage is torn apart by Dierdre’s voyage of selfishness. To which she is indebted to her therapist, one Dr. Finch portrayed by Brian Cox, who prescribes daily five hour sessions in order to save her faltering marriage. Her husband, portrayed by the deliciously talented Alec Baldwin balks at the commitment and walks out of their lives, seemingly forever.

When Dierdre and her teenage son, portrayed by Joseph Cross go to visit Dr. Finch at his home, the prissy young lad is taken aback at the seeming squalor and filth which is the earmark as we all know of any family straight out of a touring company of “You Can’t Take It With You”. But this family doesn’t want to take anything with them. Instead they choose to bring everybody into their chaotic and tectonic lives. We meet the Finch family in full bizarro mode.

The mother is portrayed by the criminally misused Jill Clayburgh – seriously, Jill, what happened to you after the mid eighties? You burst upon the scene in the seventies, landed two Oscar nominations for superlative work in “An Unmarried Woman” and “Starting Over” and practically disappeared into TV guest star oblivion. Here she is sadly miscast as a frumpy, dour matriarch who wanders her home in a Zombie like trance, watching “Dark Shadows” repeats and nibbling dog food.

The eldest daughter is Hope, one prissy uptight twat that communicates with her cat, named Freud . . . stay with us, during REM sleep mode and dresses straight out of a “Little House on the Prairie” episode. Gwyneth Paltrow is assigned the thankless task to sleepwalk her way through the role.

Evan Rachel Wood, who either needs to outgrow the rebellious teen roles, or retire from acting – we’ll take option number two – appears as Natalie . . . the rebellious teenaged daughter who paints herself up like a whore and is keen on tormenting all around her, especially the latest prey to enter this web of dysfunction – young Augusten.

For Deirdre has apparently come to the realization through her therapy sessions that she must devote her life to channeling her anger, allowing her creative juices to flow, and relinquish her parental control to the Finches in order to provide Augusten with some “stability”. Finally, an answer to whether or not Deirdre is sane or not! She’s not.

And thank God for that! For while there are many things to dislike about “Running With Scissors”, the towering performance by Annette Bening is most definitely not one of them. She is a force of nature, in full mercurial bitch goddess mode, savoring each outlandish request made from the screenwriter and director – Ryan Murphy of “Nip / Tuck” fame. Although this film has stronger parallels to his earlier claim to fame, “Popular”.

Now, while we have enjoyed a few episodes of “Nip / Tuck”, we are keenly aware that not every writer / director working for the Boob Tube demographic should be allowed free reign behind a major motion picture. While Ryan may have an eye for sarcastic visual flair and a rather unhealthy preponderance for heavy usage of seventies Top 40 staples, the two together do not provide the framework for a full story. You know you are in trouble when a scene is built around a Phoebe Snow pop hit of thirty years ago.

It seems a shame that George Lucas ever created his teen memorabilia sensation of 1973, for more bad movies have been made attempting to eschew the real charms and sense of period that Lucas achieved with his heavy pop score to the now classic “American Graffiti”. People. That score meant something in the context of Lucas’ vision of a way of life for the teens involved. You can’t just simply hop onto iTunes and start downloading everything from Elton John to Al Stewart and hope to create a sense of atmosphere for a movie! Focus!

All of which is a damn shame, considering the top notch cast which also includes Joseph Fiennes as a moustacio’d former patient of Dr. Finch’s who is matched up with Augusten by Natalie presumably because they are the only two gay men in the village. Zzzzzzz. Forget the fact that Augusten is fourteen when the thirty five year old whack job first rummages up his sphincter, looking for the candy surprise. At this point in the film, we can handle a touch of pedophilia. It just seems to us that if any part of this story were true to begin with it perhaps should have remained lost to memories closet.

We don’t object to unsavory material. We don’t reject the overreaching eccentric natures of the family in question. We do however categorically reject the notion that a voyage of self discovery begins with mocking and ends with ridiculing. There is no payoff scene, wherein young Augusten achieves a sense of clarity about his strange predicament. There are only a series of vignettes designed to titillate and provoke shock.

Which is what makes Annette Bening’s performance all the more extraordinary. Legend has it that Julianne Moore was originally cast in the role, but expressed a desire to make Deirdre humane and not just a monster. She was shown the door. We would like to believe that the talented Miss Moore would have pulled it off quite nicely. But Annette’s choice to lay bare all the rack and ruin of this caricature’s outlandishly selfish odyssey, provides the only moments of truth in a cartoon world. Her rages, delusions, fits and quips all ring true based solely on her prowess as an actress. It is shamefully one of the best performances this year, in a film that would have been better off remaining a telltale memoir.

Which brings us to the curious imbalance at the heart of this piece. For a memoir that purports to trace the evolution of one scarred young man’s childhood – it is curiously uninvolved with its hero. We think young Joseph Cross delivers a believable performance that manages to hit all the right marks, but his story is so peripheral to the chaos at the Finch household, or the engulfing theatrics of Deirdre’s quest that he might as well be a disembodied voice. It is a mistake if we are meant to care for this lost boy. What is not a mistake is the casting of Annette Bening – for all the films faults and there are many, her grand turn makes this voyage down a candy colored jukebox lane worth the trip. Bless you all!

Written and Directed by Ryan Murphy
Based on the personal memoirs of Augusten Burroughs

Annette Bening as Deirdre Burroughs
Joseph Cross as Augusten Burroughs
Brian Cox as Dr. Finch
Joseph Fiennes as Neil Bookman
Evan Rachel Wood as Natalie Finch
Alec Baldwin as Norman Burroughs
Jill Clayburgh as Agnes Finch
Gwyneth Paltrow as Hope Finch
Gabrielle Union as Dorothy
Patrick Wilson as Michael Shephard
Kristin Chenoweth as Fern Stewart
Colleen Camp as Joan
Jack Kaeding as Six-Year-Old Augusten Burroughs

Cinematography by Christopher Baffa
Film Editing by Byron Smith
Original Music by James S. Levine
Production Design by Richard Sherman
Art Direction by Lorin Flemming
Set Decoration by Matthew “Flood” Ferguson
Costume Design by Lou Eyrich



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