MOVIE REVIEW- Snippy: Bening's shameless Oscar bid
Annette Bening delivers a shameless, "Gimme an Oscar!" performance as bipolar Deirdre Burroughs in Running with Scissors, a bipolar movie based on Augusten Burroughs' memoir of coming of age in the 1970s.
We meet Augusten (Jack Kaeding) in 1972, when he's six years old and under the spell of his mother, Dierdre, a wannabe poet who auditions her work for her enthusiastic son before submitting it to the New Yorker. Norman (Alec Baldwin), his alcoholic father, is rarely there for him so it's no wonder Augusten is a mama's boy. She'll let him stay home from school with excuses like, "I overconditioned my hair."
By 1978 it's obvious the family needs help. It arrives, in a spoof of The Exorcist, in the form of a psychiatrist, Dr. Finch (Brian Cox), whose own family is even worse. Augusten (played by Joseph Cross, who's far too old– 20 now, 19 during filming– for the role) finds out first hand when Dr. Finch persuades his parents to divorce, and Dierdre sends the boy to live with the psychiatrist.
Dr. Finch has a drab wife, Agnes (Jill Clayburgh), and two daughters, Hope (Gwyneth Paltrow), his favorite, and Natalie (Evan Rachel Wood), "the other daughter." Augusten bonds with the rebellious Natalie and tells her he's gay. She tells him about another of Dr. Finch's adopted sons, Neil Bookman (Joseph Fiennes), who introduces him to "what gay men do." Soon they're doing it regularly, never mind that Neil's more than twice Augusten's age.
At this point, Dierdre is in and out of her son's life, mostly out. One day Augusten pays her a surprise visit and finds her in the arms of Fern (Kristin Chenoweth), a younger woman from her poetry group. He's shocked: "How could my mother be with Fern? Fern drives a Chevy Nova."
Augusten tries to avoid school because "I don't fit in." Dr. Finch offers professional fatherly advice: a suicide attempt will give him a legitimate excuse for missing a few months. He also helps Dierdre, when she's been dumped by Fern, by introducing her to another of his patients, Dorothy Ambrose (Gabrielle Union), who competes with Augusten for his mother's affection.
When Augusten is 14, he gives himself a new look that involves wearing scarves Isadora Duncan style, but without her consequences. At 15 he declares, "I want rules and boundaries....I want to be grounded for sleeping with a 35-year-old schizophrenic!" Years earlier, while still living with both parents, he had asked, "Why can't we just be a normal family?" not realizing that they were.
Written, produced and directed by Ryan Murphy, creator of Nip/Tuck, Running with Scissors is a depressing comedy that has some hilarious moments but ultimately more serious pain than funny pain. Once you've been moved by the characters, it's harder to laugh at them; and some of the humor is particularly vicious.
True or not– and like most successful recent memoirs, its veracity has been questioned– Burroughs' Mommie Dearest is often quite unpleasant. It's like a gayer version of The Royal Tenenbaums that doesn't work.
They must have used low-calorie scenery or Bening would have gained a ton from all she chews up. She does it brilliantly, but she's too blatantly vying for award consideration to notice what's going on around her. (True, Deirdre is self-absorbed...) The casting of Cross (Wide Awake) seems calculated to make the film less offensive by having Augusten appear older than he's supposed to be. (His age is only mentioned a couple of times, once as "over 13.")
The rest of the cast, hemmed in by the script's bipolarity, is good enough to make you care about them, which spoils a lot of the comedy. Perhaps if someone hadn't run away with the scissors, the script could have been cut into something more viable.