Running With Scissors
The question is, when you've been the child of a smothering mother and a distant, alcoholic father, been abandoned - literally - to the care and household of a quack psychiatrist and his bizarre family - AND you find you're gay at a time when everyone like you is deep in the closet - can you turn that childhood into a moving yet hilarious work of art?
The answer for Augustan Burroughs is yes you can, and now there's a - I'm not sure how to say this - a delicious movie that's been made from your book. A first film written and directed by Ryan Murphy, who created the television show "Nip/Tuck," it stars that underappreciated actress Annette Bening in a virtuoso performance as Augustan's mother Deirdre Burroughs, a force of nature comparable to Hurricane Katrina, along with a cast of actors all of whom have starred in their own films: Alec Baldwin as her husband; Brian Cox as the bizarre Dr. Finch, Jill Clayburgh as his enabling wife Agnes, Gwyneth Paltrow as their older daughter Hope, who finds her way through life by touching a finger to the bible and taking her cues from whatever word she touches; Evan Rachel Wood as their rebellious younger daughter Natalie, and Joseph Fiennes as their adopted older son Neil, who initiates Augustan into sex for the first time. The 20-year-old actor Joseph Cross is the teenage Augustan, who narrates the film early on, taking us into his life until we are captured by the story and simply watch him live it out.
Murphy has given everyone time and space to explore their characters for us, and it pays off handsomely with moment after moment that make us cringe and laugh at the same time.
Bening, as Deirdre, is a most deservedly unappreciated poet whose greatest achievement so far, other than doing her best to smother Augustan, is to have a poem accepted by Yankee magazine. The Finch family live in a pink gingerbread house in which no one has bothered to do the dishes for what appears to be years. Agnes lives on dog kibble, the Christmas tree has been up forever, Neil has been exiled because he's gay, Dr. Finch happily prescribes tranquilizers and unquestioning obedience to his whims - the place is a mess.
So how come it's funny? Because a good artist - writer or filmmaker - can make wit out of horror. What would seem a classic case for Child Protective Services turns into a fascinating human zoo. Augustan the writer has given Augustan the character the ability to step back and observe the Finch family as well as live within it. There are sight gags, witty lines, double takes and more, but there is also, dare I say it, love and sadness and an acquaintance with failed lives. "Running With Scissors" is an unexpectedly lovely film, and watching the skill with which Bening puts together for us all the disparate corners of her character, without a diva's self-awareness, is to watch a master at work.