Cinema Junkie by Beth Accomando
Friday, October 27, 2006
Over a black screen, Augusten Burroughs asks where he should begin the story of his life. Randomly, he picks a moment when his mother calls the school to explain that Augusten will not be in because he over-conditioned his hair. Its a fond memory but we sense it may not be a typical one. Then the screen goes black again and Augusten decides that it doesnt matter where he begins his story because we wont believe him any way.
We are introduced to Augustens mom Deirdre (Annette Bening) in 1972 from the point of view of an adoring elementary school child (Jack Kaeding plays the six-year-old Augusten). Her flamboyance, flair for melodrama and disregard for such parental duties as sending her son to school make her wildly appealing to a young child. At one point she demands her young sons undivided attention as she dramatically stages a poetry reading in the living room and solicits Augustens opinion. Thrilled to have his opinion valued and eager to please her, he deems her poem worthy of the New Yorker.
But as time passes and Augusten grows into a teenager (now played by Joseph Cross who can also be seen in Flags of Our Fathers ), Deirdres eccentricities become less endearing. She rails at her alcoholic husband (Alec Baldwin), who seems a polar opposite to her as he keeps everything in, and condemns him for suffocating her and stifling her creativity. She begins seeing a new age-y therapist named Finch (Brian Cox) who urges her to divorce her husband. Then he convinces her to legally give up her son so he can adopt him. Augusten cant believe that his mother would sign him over to a man who lives in a decrepit pink mansion where the dishes havent been done in years and a patients kid can be found pooping behind a weary Christmas tree. But she has indeed abandoned him to this new family. Now Augusten must trade in the dysfunction of his biological family for the eccentricities of his adoptive one. His new mother (Jill Clayburgh) snacks on dog food while watching Dark Shadows ; his new sister Hope (Gwenyth Paltrow) is a spinsterish young woman with a somber religious zeal; another sister (Rachel Evan Ward) has a wild streak; and estranged son Neil (Joseph Fiennes) hears voices and has urges to kill his father. Augusten, however, survives all this and to an extent triumphs by leaving and writing what would become a best-selling memoir.
As brought to the screen by writer-director Ryan Murphy, Running with Scissors works best in the opening scenes when Augusten is still very young. In these scenes everything meshes. Augustens delight in his mother is perfectly reflected in the films visual design. The poetry reading, for example, has Deirdre dressed in bright yellow robes that match the colors of her living room dcor; its as if everything in her world has been designed for her, and through young Augustens eyes she is a radiant star. In these scenes we can understand what impressed a young child yet we also gets hints of what will become more problematic behavior later. These scenes also capture a feel for the seventies in the colors of kitchen appliances and the way Deirdre can host a poetry workshop in her home urging women to put their rage on the page.
But as the film progresses, the tone and design become less successful. The costumes and production design that worked so well in the early scenes grows less inspired as we enter the doctors dreary, cluttered house. Murphy also seems uncertain of the tone. Should we see this new family Augusten has been adopted into as merely silly or genuinely dangerous? The proclivity toward humor makes the film feel more superficial and less emotionally compelling. Being given up for adoption by a mother you adored must have been more painful and traumatic than the film implies. But Murphys take on the events of Augustens life is less concerned with conveying genuine emotions and more interested in holding up the absurdity of it for us to marvel at. Murphys use of music also grows heavy-handed as it is used to drive the mood of the film rather than complement it. His use of popular period songs falls into a predictable paint-by-the-numbers routine that places the songs inn the foreground.
Murphy has assembled an ensemble cast that savors sinking its teeth into such eccentric characters. These are the kind of performances that have Oscar written all over them, like Angelina Jolies role as the loony in Girl Interrupted . Its not that the performers deliver bad performances; in fact they all perform quite well. But rather the problem is that each performance is held up by Murphy for us to admire in all its quirkiness. Putting Benings character of Deirdre at center stage and holding that performance up for attention is partially justified by Deirdres desperate need for attention. But the way Murphy tends to focus on Bening makes her seem to exist on a separate plane from all the other characters. But then maybe thats how she seemed to Augusten. Young Cross makes Augusten sympathetic and appealing but at times Murphy makes him into a bystander in his own life. (Note that in the end credits you get to see Cross and the real Augusten Burroughs.)
Running with Scissors (rated R for language, drug use and sexual content) lacks the grit that made the dysfunction of the family in Thumbsucker seem more real, and it lacks the witty edge that made the eccentric family in Igby Goes Down so gleefully fascinating.
Companion viewing: Igby Goes Down, Thumbsucker, The Royal Tennenbaums
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