Wednesday, March 14, 2007


Being a Nip/Tuck viewer, I was naturally curious to see Ryan Murphy’s adaptation of Augusten Burroughs’ memoirs, Running with Scissors. How was I to know I’d be seeing one of the most singularly moving films of 2006?

Running with Scissors follows the bizarrely improbable but true story of young Augusten (Joseph Cross), who is basically abandoned by his alcoholic father (Alec Baldwin) and unstable, struggling poet of a mother (Annette Bening), and left in the “care” of his mother’s psychiatrist, Dr. Finch (Brian Cox).
In Finch’s cluttered, pink monstrosity of a house, Augusten meets Finch’s wife, Agnes (Jill Clayburgh), his daughters Hope (Gwyneth Paltrow) and Natalie (Evan Rachel Wood), and Hope’s cat, Freud. His friendship with Natalie then leads him to meet Neil (Joseph Fiennes), Finch’s adopted son, who is both schizophrenic and gay, as is Augusten (gay, that is, not schizophrenic).
It is among these psychologically damaged individuals that Augusten struggles to find himself and his dream (which he at first believes to be the building of a hair empire, ala Vidal Sasoon, but ultimately is something else entirely).

As he had already proven in Nip/Tuck, Murphy is adept at sifting through the psychologies of the walking wounded, at showing the audience the scars of traumas past, and the odysseys we all need to go on in order to heal and find closure.
He brings that insight to bear on Running with Scissors, showing us the quirks and the insanities, as well as the humanity that lurks beneath the psychoses. Loony as some of them are, these are people struggling for some sort of normality, trying desperately to see past the delusions we all nurse to make things seem bearable.
The delusions springing from misplaced love and devotion are perhaps the most insidious mirages of all, and there are many of those in Running with Scissors, from Augusten’s need for a kind and nurturing parent, to Agnes’ need for a family to care for. Insidious because, as Natalie points out, sometimes, we can’t help but love someone who doesn’t deserve that love, because frankly, they’re the only ones in our lives.

Families (whether nuclear or extended) are always a tricky thing, a potential mine field of unspoken emotion, both good and bad. This is exacerbated by the fact that biology and genetics take the choice away from our hands; unlike our friends, we can’t choose our family. These are people foisted upon us by DNA, people we need to get along with, whether we like them or not.
And in a set up like that, love can blind just as easily as it can heal.

In Augusten’s world, the only other people are just as damaged as he, perhaps even more so. It is through this impossible situation of the blind leading the blind that Augusten must navigate as he comes of age. These are people who can’t really even care for themselves, much less for others.
And it is in this world that Murphy finds moments of poignant, painful clarity; when true love is communicated in the presence of a bag of dog food and an episode of Dark Shadows; when emotions are laid bare in the cramped confines of a car as rain falls in sheets outside; when a son’s tears roll down his cheeks at his birthday party.

And not only does Murphy find these moments, but he assembles a cast that brings those moments to wrenching life. These are fine performances, particularly from two of the youngest members of the cast, Cross and Wood, and the veterans, Bening (why does she keep on losing to Hilary Swank?), Cox, and Clayburgh (who has appeared on Nip/Tuck, as has Baldwin).
It’s probably only Paltrow who doesn’t quite come across as the Bible-dipping, favorite daughter; her performance doesn’t seem as honest as those of the other ensemble members. (Which is kind of sad, given my excitement at the reunion with her Shakespeare in Love partner, Fiennes.)

Still, this is a film that should resonate for anyone who’s ever thought, “Why can’t my family be normal?” And let’s face it: that’s you and me and every other one of the 6 billion souls on our planet.
This is a film that is both funny and moving, as life has the tendency of being. And despite it being based on a true story, it is at times, so bizarre that by film’s end, I’d somehow managed to forget I was watching real people and their fractured lives. It was something of a surprise to run through the “what happened to them afterwards” sequence which is a staple for based-on-a-true-story films.

Running with Scissors is a triumph for Murphy, who proves he is comfortable on the big screen, unlike some other TV writer/directors, who can’t seem to grasp the differences between the two media. It’s entirely possible in fact, that Murphy might be more at home in a finite setting like a feature film, as opposed to the continuous nature of a weekly TV serial. (Some of the best moments in the four seasons of Nip/Tuck can be found in particular episodes that are usually removed from the long-running plot threads, or in the season enders, as was the case with the Season 2 finale, which capped the stunning Ava Moore storyline, and which was the episode that featured Alec Baldwin.)

So, if you haven’t already seen it, this comes with my recommendations. However, if your tastes run more towards the Hollywood family dramedy (I loathe that marketing term) where everything is solved by an impromptu song-and-dance routine while lip synching to some oldie but goodie, steer clear of Running with Scissors. Like every sensible parent knows, it can be very dangerous.

Parting shot: As if to prove he likes working with familiar faces, Bening, Clayburgh, and Paltrow are all reportedly set to star in Murphy’s next feature, the post-Watergate set Dirty Tricks, with Jim Broadbent as Richard Nixon!

(Originally posted 021207)

No comments: