Running With Scissors
Early on in the screen adaptation of Augusten Burroughs' memoir Running With Scissors, a 13-year-old Augusten (soulfully portrayed by Joseph Cross) demands of his arguing parents, "Why can't we just be a normal family?" Nothing in Augusten's life is normal--and it's not long before you realize that however not normal it is now it's only going to get worse.
It's the 1970s and, abandoned by his alcoholic father (Alec Baldwin), a man who sadly declares, "I really don't see myself in you at all," and his mother, Deirdre (Annette Bening), a bipolar manic depressive with severe delusions of grandeur, Augusten is adopted by his mother's shrink, Dr. Finch (Brian Cox). Finch--a wildly eccentric man who lives in a pink Victorian house filled with David Lynchian absurdities such as typewriter-filled fireplaces, a Christmas tree that never comes down, and a masturbatorium for, well, masturbating--proves to be as unhealthy a parental figure for Augusten as his own parents, and the boy quickly develops a sexual relationship with his 35-year-old brother-in-adoption, Bookman (Joseph Fiennes), a schizophrenic pedophile with anger-management issues. There are also two new sisters: a strange, Bible-thumping Hope (Gwyneth Paltrow, almost nonexistent here) and another victim of sexual abuse, Natalie (played with profound grace by Evan Rachel Wood). An almost unrecognizable Jill Clayburgh plays Finch's doggy-kibble-eating wife, a woman broken by her place in life and fearfully jealous of the fascination her husband has for Deirdre.
For the next two years, Augusten learns from these bizarre, often terrible, but very human characters how to survive through the act of actually doing it. For the first time in his life, he is forced to confront the fact that his mother is everything but the misunderstood, undiscovered poetic genius she imagines herself to be; the conflict between feminism and the still nascent science of psychiatry are tearing her already fragile mind apart. A humorless child, Augusten must learn how to find the absurd in all of this pain. If he can't laugh at it, the true horror of it all will kill him.
Cross--who underplays his role in contrast to a wonderfully over-the-top, dark, and tragic Bening--manages to convey anguish and resilience through an almost passive, reactive performance. Even Baldwin, who with The Departed is reinventing himself as Hollywood's go-to supporting actor, proves unforgettable--which is to say that Scissors is a performance-driven movie, backed up by colorful set design and a screenplay that is topnotch, at least for the first half. Come the second half, though, the balance of this adaptation by writer/director Ryan Murphy (Nip/Tuck) goes haywire and your ability to laugh with Augusten at his tragedies surrenders to the engulfing tragedy of it all.