The Reeler


October 18, 2006

Running With Scissors

Magnetic Bening can't save twee Burroughs adaptation from itself

A garish, green-on-white ivy print seems to have permeated every room of Augusten Burroughs' house in the screen adaptation of his best-selling 2002 memoir, Running With Scissors. Spread heedlessly over the curtains, couches, wallpaper and even bystanding lampshades, the ivy infestation suggests a misguided decorator's attempt to "unify" what turns out to be a supremely fractured home. It even shows up in a slightly altered form on Augusten's father's tie, his mother's dressing gown, and his own t-shirt.

You can take it with you, in other words, and what a pity that can be. It's a genuinely nice touch in a film that tends to shove its nice touches down your throat; in its attempt to capture Burroughs' wacky, often wrenching teen years, the film is unified -- as with the Burroughs' home -- mainly by an impulse toward overstatement.

In 1972 we meet Augusten as a boy, worshipping at the temple of his would-be poet mother, played by Annette Bening in finely deluded, sweeping form, her sublime contralto poised to wither all comers. She is a staunch woman (in the glorious Little Edie/Grey Gardens tradition) and Exhibit A in the film's long line of damning evidence against what can happen to people when they don't get what they need. What becomes clear by 1978, when Augusten (Joseph Cross) is 13, is that a commanding voice can only cover up the crazy for so long; in a brutal fight with her drunkard husband (a wonderfully haggard Alec Baldwin), something cracks in Deirdre Burroughs, sending fault lines through the family that will separate the three of them permanently.

Writer/director Ryan Murphy (Nip/Tuck) buffs the rest of Burroughs' unbelievable story to a high, quirky sheen, every scenic non-sequitur neatly fluffed and folded, every tear and emotional takedown expertly pulsing to '70s rock. After Augusten's father leaves for good, his mother sends him to live with her therapist (Brian Cox) and his freak show family, including yin and yang daughters (Evan Rachel Wood and Gwyneth Paltrow), kibble-nibbling wife Jill Clayburgh and an adopted schizophrenic son played by an unrecognizable Joseph Fiennes. Many of the laughs are cheap and teased out, and many of the "shocking" moments (Cross and Woods thrashing a "skylight" into the kitchen ceiling; Cox gathering the family around his latest "creation" in the toilet bowl) seem a little too pleased with themselves to arouse the mix of pathos and humor -- that patented Wes Anderson Wist -- that Murphy is going for.

Cross' blank-faced Augusten blends too well into the formica-and-turtlenecks milieu of the film, making it difficult to keep track of his besieged character's development (only in the last scene do we learn he has any interest in writing, outside of his journal entries) and all too easy for Bening, Cox and even Wood to overwhelm him. Bening in particular is magnetic as a woman just barely hanging on to her last marble in every moment but who'll cut you dead for noticing. "Get the rage on the page," she instructs a member of her drippy poetry circle, and it is the seething, tragic anger in Bening's portrayal of Deirdre Burroughs -- because, as anyone who's known a bona fide crazy person knows, crazy ain't actually all that funny -- that grants this film its one, clanging respite from the terminally twee.

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