By Admin | October 28, 2006

It’s obviously no picnic to grow up with an insane mother, distant father, and a surrogate family that isn’t quite right in its collective head. Luckily for us, Augusten Burroughs decided to describe this particular childhood in great detail, resulting in the acclaimed memoir “Running with Scissors.” Now, to satisfy our morbid appetite for the big screen portrayal of mental and spiritual dissolution, writer/director Ryan Murphy has brought Burroughs’ tale to the theater. In the film – as in real life – young Augusten (Joseph Cross) watches his aspiring poet mother Deirdre (Annette Bening) go from mere quirkiness in 1972 to full-blown psychosis some six years later. His father Norman (Alec Baldwin) offers no help, being a practicing alcoholic who understands neither his wife nor his unusually sensitive son. Marriage counseling with one Dr Finch (Brian Cox) goes nowhere (he suggests daily sessions of five hours), and so the couple split up for good shortly after Augusten turns 14.

Unable to deal with the stress, Deirdre makes the rather drastic decision to entrust her son to the care of Dr. Finch and his family, who can charitably be described as “unhinged” (a situation that eventually results in his full-blown adoption). Long-suffering mother Agnes (Jill Clayburgh) wanders through the house like a shell-shocked infantryman without even trying to referee her belligerent daughters. Hope (Gwyneth Paltrow), the doctor’s stated favorite, talks to her cat and runs dad’s office. The younger Natalie (Evan Rachel Wood) is a burgeoning sexpot who befriends the confused Augusten, and he finds in Natalie something of a kindred spirit. The third child, Neil (Joseph Fiennes), is estranged from the family, less for his homosexuality and more for the very real possibility that he harbors some serious revenge fantasies.

Murphy has assembled a distinctive cast, replete with Oscar nominees (Bening, Baldwin, Clayburgh), Oscar winners (Paltrow), and former jailbait (Wood), and just about everyone pulls their weight (though it’s hard to see Cross playing anything after this other than the serial rapist in future movies of the week). Bening and Clayburgh are especially noteworthy, even if both personify the old adage that if you want to make an established Hollywood actress look crazy, film her without makeup. Fiennes is almost unrecognizable as Neil, though he’ll remind older viewers of one of the extras from Al Pacino’s “Cruising.” Luckily, this dovetails with some well-placed nods to Freudian psychoanalysis; each child represents one of the aspects of psychosexual development (oral, anal, and…nasal), Hope’s ill-fated cat is also named Freud, and everyone is looking for daddy’s approval.

It’s hard to fault a memoir where your mom gives you up for adoption to her therapist before coming out as a lesbian. I mean, that’s pretty much comedy gold, and there are some moments of genuine hilarity here. Unfortunately, Murphy doesn’t have much of a handle on juggling laughs with pathos, and this makes some of the more touching scenes unintentionally amusing. The film, like Augusten’s life, is uneven but not without its charms.

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