Thursday, October 19, 2006

Stabbing at Scissors

I love Nip/Tuck. It's the kind of TV show I usually hate, full of plastic people--but its willingness to dig deep under their facades, psychically as well as physically, fascinates me. It "jumps the shark" every episode with some new and incredible plot twist, in or out of the operating room, then asks, "Well, if you think you're so above this, why are you still watching?" Why indeed? Its reveling in, and simultaneous critique of, our beauty-obsessed culture is just about the most riveting thing that's currently on the tube. And any show that finds something genuinely touching about Rosie O'Donnell, in a guest role, can't be easily dismissed.

So I was predisposed to like Running with Scissors (TriStar Pictures, opens Oct. 20), the feature film writing and directing debut of Nip/Tuck creator Ryan Murphy, from Augusten Burroughs' memoir, which is riding high atop The New York Times' paperback bestsellers list. But I didn't. Really, really, didn't, as Roger Ebert might say. What went wrong?

As on the show, there's no shortage of crazed egomaniacs and nutjob therapists in Burroughs' life, so Murphy should have felt right at home. An only child, six-year-old Augusten is buffeted between his parents, Norman (Alec Baldwin), an alcoholic math professor who can't make his precocious neatnik son add up, and Deirdre (Annette Bening), an unpublished poet whose wild flights of fantasy are fueled by her compulsive pill-popping. As the marriage hits the skids Deirdre signs up her family for intensive therapy with Dr. Finch (Brian Cox), a charismatic quack who retreats to his personal "masturbatorium" when the day-long sessions get boring. [It's the early 1970's, and anything goes.] Eventually, Deirdre, who ambles from prescription to prescription, decides that Augusten (played, from age 13-15, by Joseph Cross) should simply live with the Finches; moreover, the doctor should adopt the boy, as Deirdre pursues her "career" and Norman pretty much vanishes from sight. His roost in the crumbling Finch home is not a happy one--Mrs. Finch (Jill Clayburgh with matted, stringy hair) putters around monosyllabically, when not watching Dark Shadows, and eldest daughter Hope (Gwyneth Paltrow) thumps the Bible. Augusten, shell-shocked by his changing circumstances, announces he's gay--a prognosis that is immediately challenged by daughter Natalie (Evan Rachel Wood), a disco dolly, but confirmed by Neil (Joseph Fiennes), Finch's schizophrenic, 35-year-old son, who begins an affair with the boy.

I've not read the book, from which the film has apparently been fictionalized, at least in part. But I've read articles by Burroughs and can imagine its tone being one of a quirky, scruffy surrealism--a cataloging of mind-bending experiences actually lived. I'm not sure how credible a lot of it is, frankly; IRS investigators nose around the Finches but the doctor's law-skirting excesses seem too much even for the Seventies. But the movie is determined to make the unpalatable palatable, to smooth things over, to go for whimsy and heartache and final-act confrontations and healing. One look at Clayburgh and you know she will turn out to be the deux ex machina who sets the caged Finch free, so he can go off and become--this you already knew--a writer.

What Murphy can't do, however, is gloss over the abusive relationship Augusten has with the pitiably demented Neil. Nice try casting the older Cross in the role, to let the movie off the hook, but knowing that Augusten was in his early teens when the seduction began is guaranteed to raise the hackles. Casting a younger boy in the part would have thrown cold water all over the attempt to sentimentalize the relationship, to make it look like something other than abuse--which is pretty much the same thing Murphy does with Augusten and Deirdre, a monster mother to give Joan Crawford fits of envy. These are horrible people, whom the movie wants us to see as funny-sad, human in all their many flaws, and it just doesn't play. You can see the whitewash drying on the celluloid.

There are things to like about Running with Scissors. The actors are hamstrung by the slack, uncomfortable pacing of many of the scenes--Murphy's TV-learned strength is structuring between commercials--but not entirely defeated, and I appreciated the modulation Bening and Clayburgh (a Nip/Tuck veteran) managed to bring to their parts. Cross and Fiennes have difficult assignments they can't altogether rise to under the circumstances; Wood has an easier time of it, but I can't fathom why Paltrow took on her nothing part. [She's said she's tired of acting, and between this and Infamous I have no reason not to believe her.] The inevitable Brian Cox is disappointing as the charmingly fraudulent Finch; much as I like the actor, he is overexposed and underemoting, and needs to take a break.

The American Gothic Finch household designed by Richard Sherman, shot with an accent on bold primary colors by Christopher Baffa, is eye-catching. But so much of Running with Scissors, a film that wants to shock and soothe all at once, is mind-numbing. What really stuck in the craw was a note in the production releases from the author, saying that all is well--whatever happened to him, happened, and he's now a bestselling author with a movie to boot. I don't know what's more repellent; the movie, or the author's strip-mining and reframing of his own misery to attract sales.

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