One has to balance the several fine performances with the most depressing screenplay of the year if one is to gain any kind of satisfaction from Running With Scissors, the debut directorial effort from Ryan Murphy (TV series Nip/Tuck) about a dysfunctional — with a capital “D” — family. In fact, it’s like American Beauty without the laughs; Ordinary People without the good-hearted hijinks; Taxi Driver without the singing and dancing. If one’s deepest, darkest, most foreboding psychosis had cinematography, this movie would be it.
Interestingly enough, the film is an autobiographical tale of Augusten Burroughs (20-year-old Joseph Cross, Flags of Our Fathers, playing a 15-year-old — and not very convincingly), the son of a violent alcoholic, Norman (Alec Baldwin) and a delusional, psychotic mother, Deirdre (Annette Bening) growing up in the 1970s. To lessen the burden, the film telling tries to walk a black comedy line — but cannot straddle it very well — often relying on just plain unabashed weirdness to make its point.
Deirdre is convinced by her equally loony psychiatrist, Dr. Finch (Brian Cox, The Bourne Identity, Emmy winner for Nuremberg) to turn Augusten over to his custody. The doctor’s family is even more ridiculous than his own and consists of: Haggard, brow-beaten wife Agnes (Jill Clayburgh, An Unmarried Woman) and his two daughters, prudish ice queen, Hope (Gwyneth Paltrow, Iron Man) and teenage slut, Natalie (Rachel Evan Ward, The Wrestler). To top it off they all live in a pink house Herman Munster would have condemned.
Augusten is also successfully propositioned by 35-year-old psycho (okay, EVERYONE is crazy in one form or another in Running With Scissors, let’s just establish that right now) named Bookman (Joseph Fiennes, Shakespeare In Love; looking like Ben Stiller in Dodgeball: A True Underdog Story).
The movie smothers with an unrelenting, suffocating kind of depression that never lets up, even for small moments of extremely dark comedy — Hope starves a cat to death, Finch is enamored with feces, Bookman screeches anti-nun poetry (Deirdre’s slippage into insanity is often hilarious, though).
It has a great soundtrack of 1970s hit, however, including Benny and the Jets, Blinded By the Light and Year of the Cat. And, as the wackiest of all wacky mothers, Bening deserved her nomination for a Golden Globe and should have been recognized by the Academy for her (way over-the-top) performance.
Her work is probably the only reason to see Running With Scissors. You won’t smile much while watching it, but you will walk away thinking (no matter what condition your condition is in) what a great life YOU have.