Thursday, October 12, 2006

Review: Running With Scissors (2006)

Running With Scissors
116 minutes
Rated R

by Scott Mendelson

Harrison Ford often tells a story about his earliest days in showbiz. Meeting with a producer after a small role, he was told that he didn't have what it took to be a star. The producer told him that when he looked at (I think…) Paul Newman playing a grocery bagger, he would say, "that guy, when I look at him, he looks like a star!" Ford dryly responded, "I thought you should be saying 'gee, that looks like a grocery bagger'?"

It is unfortunate in this day and age that what passes for great acting is often showy and over-the-top while subtle character immersion is often dismissed if not outright criticized. In our film world, over-the-top showboats like Roberto Benigni and Angelina Jolie win Oscars while actors who refuse to be larger than their characters (such as Ford, Keanu Reeves, and Kevin Costner) are constantly attacked as being wooden or un-charismatic.

The reason I bring this up is because most of the press involved with Running With Scissors is focused on Annette Bening's allegedly Oscar-worthy leading role as a mentally ill, fame-seeking, delusional, hysterical mother to the lead character Augusten Burroughs (it is his memoirs upon which this movie is based). Bening is fine (she's rarely been less than fine) in what's actually a supporting role, but most of her many 'big scenes' have the whiff of 'acting' to them, as if the words 'for your consideration' should be burned into the film as a running ticker. Ironically, she is the lone weak point in an otherwise stunningly acted film, with terrific performances compensating for a muddled, disjointed narrative.

The plot… Augustus Burroughs (Joseph Cross, who is in nearly every frame of this film and finally crosses into leading man territory) is born into a most dysfunctional household. His mother is mentally ill and obsessed with being famous to the point of emotional child abuse. Augustus's father (Alec Baldwin, nearly stealing the film with about fifteen subtle, heartbreaking minutes of screen time) has had enough, spending his days teaching then coming home to a wife who inexplicably resents him and a son who takes her side. "I really don't see anything of myself in you," he states to his ten-year-old son, and it rings true not as an insult but as a self-lacerating acknowledgment of his own futility and failure as a father.

As he reaches adolescence, Augustus is puzzlingly sent to live at the home of his mother's equally insane psychologist (Brian Cox, slightly over the top but entertaining as always). In this large, completely unkempt home lives Dr. Finch, his two daughters (the rebellious and emotionally wounded Evan Rachel Wood and the religious and obedient Gwyneth Paltrow), his schizophrenic thirty-four year-old son who lives in the barn (Joseph Fiennes), and the doctor's emotionally shattered wife (Jill Clayburgh).

That's really all the plot one needs, as the film then becomes a character study as all the various freaks and bystanders try to come to grips with their psychoses in an occasionally sitcomish fashion. It is Jill Clayburgh who truly owns the movie with her devastatingly sad portrayal of a normal woman who has resigned herself to an unhappy life as a den mother of uncaring freaks. Bening may win the Oscar (if Helen Mirren doesn't deservedly win for The Queen), but it's Clayburgh who will make you shed tears.

As for the non-acting components, the film is a bit of a mess. While these damaged souls are treated sympathetically, our sympathy is far more tied to the bystanders (Cross, Wood, Baldwin, and Clayburgh), whose chances for a normal and happy life have been sabotaged. The biggest problem is that the film really has no reason for being, nothing to teach or explore beyond the train-wreck factor, along with the relief that your family wasn't this freakish and hurtful. We watch as these insane people do insane and damaging things to each other, merely passive observers to the chaos. There is no clear focus as to whether this is supposed to be comedy or tragedy and there really is no overriding theme to the whole adventure. Also problematic is the entire third act, which has no less than four false endings.

The film is an acting treat, with a quality cast of character actor veterans doing their thing with meaty character parts. Cross is fantastic, as are Clayburgh and Baldwin. Bening, Cox, and the rest all do what they must. They take a muddled and overly pointless movie and make a film that is, in the end, worth seeing.

Grade: B-

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