After leaving “Running with Scissors,” I called my mother to tell her I loved her—after you see what Augusten Burroughs endured during his upbringing, you’d have to be without a soul to not react the same way.
This is the power of the directorial debut of Ryan Murphy, best known as the creator of the groundbreaking television series “Nip/Tuck,” an adaptation of Augusten Burroughs’ bestseller.
Newcomer Joseph Cross takes his first leading role as Augusten, a boy growing up in the 1970s with two feuding parents. A young Augusten develops a close relationship with his mother Deirdre (Annette Bening, “American Beauty”). She is a struggling poet who only wants respect from her peers, and her alcoholic husband Norman—played with the perfect mixture of exhaustion and sarcasm by Alec Baldwin.
When Norman walks out on the family, Deirdre begins seeing Dr. Finch (Brian Cox, “The Bourne Identity”), an unorthodox therapist who medicates her with pills, pills, and more pills. Desensitized to the world, Deirdre allows Finch and his family to adopt Joseph, which in the name of preserving her sanity.
Augusten embarks upon life with the Finches, perhaps the most neurotic, Freudian-inspired family in the history of literature and cinema, which includes the doctor, his put-upon homemaker wife Agnes (Jill Clayburgh, “Ally McBeal”), and two daughters, Natalie (Even Rachel Wood, “Thirteen”) and Hope (Gwyneth Paltrow).
Throughout the movie it is readily apparent that this is a stellar cast that embodies each role with gusto and force. I cannot emphasize enough how engaging Cross is. He is hurt and baffled by his mother’s actions and those of Finch, who himself is so disturbed that he literally studies his own fecal matter.
Cross is able to hold his own against the more established acting presences of Bening and Cox. His comedic timing is impeccable, and his dramatic range is showcased in every scene in which he begs his mother to take him back home. These emotions are so visible within Cross’s portrayal of Augusten, one wonders why he hasn’t already become a household name.
With “Scissors,” Bening adds to her pantheon of knockout performances. She is so sublimely off-putting as Deirdre you wonder how the naturally charming actress pulls it off. Deirdre’s treatment of Augusten is callous bordering on monstrous, but Bening somehow makes you sympathize with this hardhearted woman.
As Augusten’s first boyfriend, Joseph Fiennes (“Shakespeare in Love”) is also heartbreakingly funny as he portrays a diagnosed schizophrenic who becomes enamored with the protagonist.
In short, this is a movie filled with talented actors who become all the more impressive in the hands of a director who is able to create such a fantastic and compelling narrative.
Murphy should also be commended for the film’s painful and isolating atmosphere that not only speaks to the Finch household, but also the disco glamour and antidepressant culture of the 1970s.
Employing platform shoes and a soundtrack that includes Elton John, Murphy brings this decade to life. Murphy evokes such a sense of claustrophobia from his sets of the cluttered Finch household, that even the audience can feel its effects.
Perhaps the only criticism I can offer is an unenergetic start that introduces the audience to Augusten, Deirdre, and Norman. It’s slow with some dull scenes—but this accounts for such a small portion of the film that once the Finches enter the picture you are automatically sucked into the story.
Bottom Line: Neither strict comedy nor drama, “Running with Scissors” is an excellent adaptation that is a showcase for raw acting talent from Cross and Bening.
—Reviewer Jessica C. Coggins can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.