Joseph Cross as Augusten Burroughs
Annette Bening as Deirdre Burroughs
Brian Cox as Dr. Finch
Joseph Fiennes as Neil Bookman
Evan Rachel Wood as Natalie Finch
Alec Baldwin as Norman Burroughs
Jill Clayburgh as Agnes Finch
Gwyneth Paltrow as Hope Finch
Gabrielle Union as Dorothy
Patrick Wilson as Michael Shephard
Kristin Chenoweth as Fern Stewart
Dagmara Dominczyk as Suzanne
Colleen Camp as Joan
Directed by Ryan Murphy
Insanely funny and strangely moving, the oddball family in this darkly cynical comedy makes “The Royal Tenenbaums” seem normal.
Augusten Burroughs (Joseph Cross) is caught between his feuding parents (Annette Bening, Alec Baldwin) when their crackpot therapist Dr. Finch (Brian Cox) steps in and offers to take the boy off their hands, throwing the teenager into a far more dysfunctional family setting.
The dysfunctional family comedy has become a genre stereotype among indie filmmakers, yet few filmmakers can pull of the difficult task of getting viewers to empathize with their imperfect characters, as well as the likes of Wes Anderson and Noah Baumbach. Like the latter, Augusten Burroughs comes from a broken home and his “memoirs” became the basis for his bestselling novel “Running with Scissors,” which has now been adapted into a movie by Ryan Murphy, best known as the creator of “Nip/Tuck.” Murphy has assembled a pretty amazing cast to turn Burroughs’ novel into something even more eccentric.
As Burroughs reached his teenage years, his parents’ marriage was disintegrating, as his mother’s aspirations to be a published writer and poet are dashed by her husband’s lack of support. Along comes Dr. Finch (Brian Cox), a therapist who uses unconventional means to try to help them, and Augusten already realizes he’s a crackpot when his mother places the frightened boy into the doctor’s care. Granted that the premise behind “Running with Scissors” is very odd and almost implausible at times, it does start off as a fine dark comedy, but it then turns dark as Augusten is sucked into all sorts of traumatic situations in his new home. Resisting the flirtation’s of Finch’s promiscuous daughter Natalie (Evan Rachel Wood), Augusten decides he’s gay and ends up in a relationship with her schizophrenic stepbrother Neil (Joseph Fiennes). Realizing the kind of psychological damage Finch has done to his family, Augusten desperately wants to get back to his mother, but she’s started toying with lesbianism while having a mini-breakdown, and she’s glad to be single and free of the responsibilities of motherhood.
It’s often hard to sell “normal people” on a dark comedy featuring generally unlikable and even crazy people doing bad things, but like last year’s “The Squid and the Whale” or “Thumbsucker,” Murphy’s directorial debut relies on the quality of its writing and performances to strengthen the difficult material. In that sense, Annette Bening proves again why the camera loves her so much, even when not wearing make-up, as she traverses the emotional spectrum as a woman on the verge of a breakdown. Bening’s character goes through such an amazing story arc, changing persona from one act to the next, but really, there’s nothing in this performance that we haven’t seen her do so well before. The same can be said for Alec Baldwin as her husband, who disappears from the picture after the first 20 minutes, replaced by Brian Cox’s Dr. Finch, who delivers one hilarious line after another with his deadpan demeanor. When he shows Augusten his “masturbatorium” you’re already snickering before you see the pictures that hang on its walls and you completely lose it. Both of them are almost overshadowed by Jill Clayburgh as Finch’s jittery oppressed wife, who has to deal with all of his strangeness and affairs, and Evan Rachel Wood and Gwyneth Paltrow round things out with some fun scenes as Finch’s equally eccentric daughters.
With such a strong diverse cast, it’s a nice surprise to see newcomer Joseph Cross holding up many of the scenes against more experienced actors, giving Augusten just the right level of naivety and trust to make him even more likeable when confronted with constant adversity.
Murphy isn’t shy about wearing his film influences on his sleeve, and like Wes and P.T. Anderson or Cameron Crowe, he embellishes the quirky humor and pathos with a string of ’70s rock hits that heighten the emotion of the strongest scenes. The film’s biggest problem is that the tone is all over the place, and not everyone will be able to switch moods as frequently and quickly as Burroughs’ characters. It tends to be a bigger issue considering the film’s 2-hour running time and the amount of ground covered, but there are enough peaks throughout the movie that any time you feel as if it’s losing you, there’s something around the bend to win you back.
The Bottom Line:
Ryan Murphy and Augusten Burroughs’ quirky collaboration won’t be for everyone, but amidst the dark and cynical humor, there are moments that will strike a strong emotional chord with anyone who’s ever seen their family be torn apart. With plenty of laughs, tears and solid performances, “Running with Scissors” should fulfill the needs of anyone looking for a different type of family comedy.