Hammered by the critics when it first came out in theatres, Running with Scissors actually features some fine performances from its talented and multi-faceted cast. Even though it's a little overlong and less than perfectly focused, this is a compulsively watchable movie best enjoyed by forgetting that it's supposedly all true.
The story centers on Augusten's (Joseph Cross) relationship with his mentally ill mom, Deirdre, played with great veracity by the legendary Annette Bening. It's the early 1970s, and Deirdre is just beginning to break into her stride as self-avowed feminist and poet.
Deirdre wants to be famous, but the fact that no magazine has bothered to print a word of her verse leads her to think that everyone is engaged in a vast plot to deny her the fame and wealth she so clearly deserves. As she gravitates from an almost narcissistic personality disorder to manic-depression and then on to a type of passive aggression, she takes her anger out on Augusten's alcoholic father, Norman (Alec Baldwin).
Desperate for help, Deirdre ends up packing her poor son off to live with her quack psychiatrist with issues of his own, a sort of dementedly benevolent Rasputin-like character named Dr. Finch (Brian Cox) who divines the future from his bowel movements and hands out prescription drugs like candy. He lives in what seems to be a terminally dilapidated house, with the IRS always hot on his trail.
Poor Augusten has to cope not only with Finch's detached and near-catatonic wife (Jill Clayburgh), who is devoted to eating cat kibble and watching reruns of Dark Shadows on television, but also his two very strange daughters, Hope (Gwyneth Paltrow), a depressive who makes her decisions by choosing random words from the Bible, and Natalie (Rachel Evan Wood), who unsuccessfully attempts to seduce Augusten with an electroshock therapy machine.
While light on plot, much of the impact of Running with Scissors comes from the dynamics that develop between Augusten and his eccentric adopted family, and his efforts to reach out to Deirdre as she steadily goes downhill, becoming addicted to prescription drugs, fanatically writing her poetry, and desperate for recognition.
Augusten does connect with Dr. Finch's adopted son, Neil (Joseph Fiennes), a 35-year-old schizophrenic former patient who lives in the garage, but even this doesn't come across as particularly healthy and is presented as the least of his problems.
Even though it's all supposed to be true - and I've never read the memoir, so I can't comment on how much of it was adapted for the film - it seems as though Murphy is at times straining to make this crazy quilt dramatically credible. Even so, when Bening is onscreen, all fired-up, giving the demented and self-deluded Deirdre everything she's got, the movie is totally compelling.
Whether she's setting the crockery out in the back yard to give it a moon wash, to trying to wash the stains of Dr. Finch away, or fanatically making a collage out of her endless rejection slips, Bening is just so captivating that you cannot look away.
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