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Running with Scissors

The Fun in Dysfunction

There are parts of Running with Scissors that you won’t want to believe are true. You’ll think they were simply exaggerations or just completely constructed. Unfortunately the film is not fiction but rather based on the indelible memoirs of writer Augusten Burroughs. His childhood brings new meaning to the term “stranger than fiction”.

Directed by Ryan Murphy (the creator of “Nip/Tuck”), Running with Scissors is one of the most original films of the year. It’s not unique in its genre, as a coming of age flick, but rather in its context. Perhaps it can best be described as The Royal Tenenbaums meets Mommy Dearest with a dash of The Ice Storm.

Augusten (played as a teenager by Joseph Cross) has some serious mommy issues. And it’s no wonder as his mother, Deirdre (Annette Bening), a self-indulgent chain-smoker with delusions of grandeur and an affinity for melodrama, has the boy wrapped around her little, manipulative finger. She fancies herself a poet and is famously well-known -- throughout the little private universe in which she chooses to exist. However, all is not well in the Burroughs household.

When she’s not writing hopelessly angry and earnest poetry, she’s fighting with Augusten’s exhausted and exasperated alcoholic father (Alec Baldwin), who, it can be argued, was most likely driven to drink by his wife. To save her failing marriage, Deidre seeks out the help of Dr. Finch, a psychiatrist who seems to be more mentally unstable than his own patients. Instead of actually holding Deirdre accountable for her actions, Finch indulges her every whim. If she were a heroin junkie, he’d most likely supply her with more smack.

When their marriage inevitably dissolves, Augusten is sent, against his will, to live with Dr. Finch, to whom she eventually gives him up for adoption. It’s a very unceremonious transition and one that is sure to make any viewer cringe. Thus, 15-year old Augusten -- who’s surprisingly well-adjusted for someone from such a screwed up family -- gets ousted from one dysfunctional situation and put right into another.

The dilapidated Finch household consists of his poor neglected and strained wife Agnes (Jill Clayburgh), the morbid and oddly Victorian Hope (Gwyneth Paltrow) and the rebellious yet vulnerable Natalie (Evan Rachel Wood) whom Augusten befriends along with Neil (Joseph Fiennes), a 35-year old schizophrenic who becomes his lover. In a normal world this kind of relationship would be unacceptable, but not here.

Running with Scissors is equal parts funny and poignant. It’s rare that such a supremely ironic and tongue-in-cheek film could also be so engaging and powerful. It is a testament to Burroughs’ strength as both a writer and a human being as well as that of director Murphy’s skills. ALL the performances here are memorable but do not be surprised if Bening receives an Academy nomination; this is her best work and she shines. Indeed, Baldwin may receive one as well. And in a perfect world Jill Clayburgh would receive a nomination for her role -- her performance is unforgettable and fraught with vulnerability.

While Running with Scissors may not be the kind of family story that warms your heart, it is a tribute to the human spirit. Despite all the pitfalls, Burroughs’ story has a (mostly) happy ending. It shows you that no matter how difficult and completely bizarre life may be, there’s always a light at the end of the tunnel. Even if that tunnel is really, really long.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars