Based on the personal memoirs of Augusten Burroughs, Running with Scissors
is a wickedly funny, brave and moving tale of surviving a most unusual childhood. Augusten's (Joseph Cross) mother (Annette Bening) is a deluded aspiring post with bipolar disorder whose marriage to his dad (Alec Baldwin) is in ruins. Soon, she is seeing a very eccentric therapist named Dr. Finch (Brian Cox), while Augusten is left in the care of Finch's wackly family, including his tightly-wound daughter (Gwyneth Paltrow). Abandoned by his parents and adopted by the Finches, he finds a kindred spirit in youngest daughter Natalie (Even Rachel Wood) and motherly support from Finch's long suffering wife Agnes (Jill Clayburgh). Constantly recording the events of his life in his journals as a way to cope, Augusten finds himself avoiding school, learning about love from an older man (Joseph Fiennes), and making big decisions at the tender age of fifteen.
Annette Bening is the stand-out highlight in this dysfunctional "family" comedy based on the bestselling memoir by Augusten Burroughs. Although fans of the book may be slightly disappointed with the film's uneven and somewhat campy rendition of Burroughs' twisted adolescence in the 1970s, there's plenty of pleasure to be found in the work of an excellent cast led by Bening, who gives a subtle dare-to-hate-me performance as Burroughs' mother Diedre, a would-be poet who's so aloof about her teenage son Augusten (played by fresh-faced newcomer Joseph Cross, from Flags of Our Fathers
) that she allows him to be legally adopted into the eccentric family of her psychiatrist, Dr. Finch (Brian Cox). As the half-crazed Finch overmedicates Diedre into a haze of semi-conscious madness, he also turns Augusten's life upside down while his wife (Jill Clayburgh) and daughters (Gwyneth Paltrow, Evan Rachel Wood) indulge their own eccentricities and Augusten enters into an intimate relationship with one of Finch's adopted patients (played by Joseph Fiennes).
As adapted and directed by Nip/Tuck creator Ryan Murphy, Running with Scissors lacks the singular voice of Burroughs' dryly comedic first-person narrative, but even as the film struggles to find a consistent tone, it's so full of wacky behavior that you can't help laughing. It's a messy, patchwork quilt of a movie, blessed by authentically garish '70s production design and a soundtrack of familiar '70s hits. In rendering Burroughs' indelible portrait of weak, irresponsible adults and the people they victimize, Murphy and his well-chosen cast (which also includes Alec Baldwin as Diedre's ex-husband) find moments of touching pathos amidst the madness. For her part, Bening delivers an acclaimed performance that gives the film a dramatic weight it otherwise lacks. The rest is for anyone who enjoys a laugh at the freak-show expense of damaged and damaging characters. --Jeff Shannon
Stills from Running with Scissors (click for larger image)
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