- The Washington Times - Thursday, October 26, 2006

Mom eats kibble, the children consult the Bible about whether to eat fish sticks for dinner, and Dad, a psychiatrist, suggests keeping a scatological shrine starting with his own specimen, of course. What is this place, a freak show? Hell? Yes, sort of; and it’s also the adoptive home into which “Running with Scissors” protagonist and real-life author Augusten Burroughs was exiled by his mother and where he grew up in an eccentric world first introduced in his best-selling memoir of the same name.

“Somebody has to write down what’s happening to me,” says the movie’s youthful star while writing in his journal. “It’s not to be believed.” And in fact, the accuracy of Mr. Burroughs’ (nee, Chris Robison) account has recently been called into question by a fairly major lawsuit. But James Frey vs. the nonfiction-writing establishment debate aside, this stuff — whatever it is — sure makes for a compelling film, and writer-director Ryan Murphy, the “Nip/Tuck” creator who obviously has a penchant for the sensational, does well here in re-creating — or at least re-imagining — this zany environment.

When audiences first encounter Augusten (Joseph Cross), he lives with his birth parents. His mom, Deirdre (Annette Bening), writes “emotionally charged” poems she’s sure will make her one famous dame, and his dad, Norman (Alec Baldwin), is a grizzled alcoholic with a homicidal streak.

By the time Augusten is a (surprisingly well-adjusted) homosexual teenager who dreams of styling hair for a living, his parents have become dangerous, warring adversaries. As Deirdre’s marriage dissolves and she leans ever closer toward the Van Gogh’s-ear side of the artist-insanity line, she enlists the professional help of unorthodox psychiatrist Dr. Finch (Brian Cox). The doctor likens life problems to constipation, gives out pills like candy, and believes he can cure Deirdre by taking her to stay at a hotel and making implied conjugal visits.

While Deirdre is in “treatment,” the Finch family adopts Augusten. Their home resembles a dilapidated flea market with kooky characters lurking about, such as Dr. Finch’s wife, Agnes (Jill Clayburgh), a disheveled woman who snacks on dog food; daughters Hope (Gwyneth Paltrow) and Natalie (Evan Rachel Wood), a prudish goody-goody and lustful vixen, respectively; and fellow adoptee Neil Bookman (Joseph Fiennes), a 35-year-old homosexual schizophrenic who lives in a shed in the back yard … and takes a liking to Augusten.

While Deirdre becomes increasingly languid and detached, her son learns to live life as a Finch. He doesn’t have a choice until he realizes he’s old enough to make one. Ultimately, Augusten will decide who his real family is and will somehow avoid getting mired down by his sordid upbringing.

“Scissors” is a neat story, one in which its protagonist discovers peace and even comedy amid anguish. And whether it’s 100 percent factual doesn’t really matter; what audiences will care about more is that it’s 100 percent well-acted. Miss Bening, in particular, is riveting.

OK, so maybe some of the film’s pacing is off, but there’s so much to take in here, from the gaudy sets to the slick soundtrack to the way the cast nails each painstaking detail: Dr. Finch’s cockeyed eyeglasses, Deirdre’s forehead twitching while she frantically smokes a cigarette, Agnes’ bleary-eyed stare.

It’s better than the reality could possibly be.

***

TITLE: “Running with Scissors”

RATING: R (language, mild violence and mature themes)

CREDITS: Written and directed by Ryan Murphy. Based on the book by Augusten Burroughs.

RUNNING TIME: 121 minutes

WEB SITE: www.sonypictures.

com/movies/runningwithscissors/index.html

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS


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