Did it feel powerful to you, emotionally charged?
— Deirdre (Annette Bening)
Augusten Burroughs has a crazy mom. Excitable, delusional, and erratic, Deirdre (Annette Bening) is simultaneously frightening and pathetic, charismatic and delusional. She is also, repeatedly, incapable of setting the usual sorts of “boundaries” for her bewildered son: she treats him as a best friend, a confidante, a confessor. Partly enthralled and partly resisting her near-sirenish pull, Augusten narrates his and her stories from the distance of someone who has survived catastrophe.
Augusten’s narration of Running with Scissors starts with a question: “How do I begin to tell the story of how my mother left me and how I left her?” He, at least, appears to understand, and feel bad about, the interlacing of their lives, as each felt disappointed by the other. Indeed, as you learn at the end of the film, which is based on the bestselling 2002 memoir by the real Burroughs, son and mother no longer speak with one another. The movie illustrates why, but in terms less tragic, awful, and persuasive than antic and trivial. Mostly taking a child’s point of view — that is, the perspective of a child essentially held hostage by the childish adults who surround him — Running with Scissors doesn’t so much follow a chronology as it collapses into itself. Poor, reasonable-seeming Augusten doesn’t have a chance, except in his recreation of himself.
This is the beauty of memoir, of course, that it allows the teller to rearrange events and fix details, so that a certain sense might be made of chaos. In this case, that sense tends to revolve around the nightmare-mother: she’s so incapable, selfish, and relentless, that her damage explains, or at least frames, all else. However the book managed this process, Ryan Murphy’s movie clunks along, a pile-on of caricatures. If Deirdre here embodies all that was loosey-goosey, willfully perverse, and wrongheaded about the 1970s, she’s hardly alone.
The precocious Augusten (briefly played as a six-year-old by Jack Kaeding, thereafter by Joseph Cross) is initially devoted to his mother. And no wonder: she keeps him home from school so he can “do” her hair. Wearing the turtleneck-and-skinny-pants ensemble considered chic at the time (1972), Augusten looks pleased to participate in his mother’s “liberation” through her art. He listens raptly as she recites her frankly dreadful poetry (“Childhood is gone! / What remains?”). He’s thrilled to be “special” like her, hoping as well that they will both be “famous,” as she suggests this is an appropriate reward for genius. Also like his mother, Augusten defines himself in opposition to his shuffling, alcoholic father Norman (Alec Baldwin), who regularly arrives home late to spend as little time with his drama queen wife as possible. For the son, as for the mother, the father is the villain. Just so, when the so-called adults fight and the drunken “oppressor” ends up bloodied and half-conscious on the floor, Augusten waits for Deirdre to narrate, to resolve the chaos into a moral order. She obliges, as she always does, for her order always has her victimized, even when Norman’s the one on the floor.
Deirdre finds frustrations no matter where she turns (and in this, she mirrors her son). An admirer of Anne Sexton, she abuses her poetry group (“Get the rage on the page,” she exhorts an assembly of intimidated housewives dressed in yellow and blue outfits), sucking on her cigarette as if it grants her insight (“My future,” she observes, “seems nefarious”). Inevitably, perhaps, given the decade and her class, Deirdre takes up therapy and medication. At this point, the film’s maybe-antic tone turns grim. In one of several scenes Augusten does not witness but reconstructs here, mom and dad visit with Dr. Finch (Brian Cox), surely one of the strangest therapists on the planet. His enchantment with Deirdre echoes Augusten’s own – both see in her the spark of genius and the desire to blossom, agreeing with her that Norman is a “narcissist.” With that, the doctor invites his clients to tour his office, including an inner sanctum he calls the “Masturbatorium” (here, he keeps portraits of Queen Elizabeth II and Golda Meier). Norman, at last, walks out.
The trauma of this event is refracted into the bits-and-pieces imagery children remember: dad in a suit, dad’s suitcase, dad through the window. Augusten is more immediately concerned with the freedom this abandonment will grant for Deirdre, though it’s clear to you that she’s quite overtaken by Dr. Finch, popping pills he hands her without much thought as to why. They pay a visit to the doctor’s home, where she disappears into the bedroom and emerges drugged out of her mind. “Dr. Finch is spiritually evolved,” she murmurs, “We’ll be safe with him.” And with that, she retires to a motel for further “treatment,” leaving Augusten with the other Finches.
Part “quirky” and part deranged (think: The World According to Garp), these consist primarily of three women, their damage less funny than condescending and creepy. Weary Agnes Finch (Jill Clayburgh) has the sort of passive glaze in her eyes that suggests she’s seen too much. She watches Dark Shadows on television (where Barnabus is more than a little reminiscent of her vampiric husband), munching doggie kibble. Augusten looks repulsed when she offers him some of her snack, but then she wonders at such upset: “It’s just kibble.” She’s right and she’s resigned. She will also be the most compassionate and durable member of his new “family.”
Still, he’s intrigued by his new “sisters,” each damaged in her own way. The devoutly though rather abstractly religious Hope (Gwyneth Paltrow) is her father’s darling, while black sheep Natalie (Evan Rachel Wood) plays her part by wearing black eye makeup and glowering at dinner (apparently more often than not, fish sticks). Alternately comfortable with and appalled by the household goings-on (one argument ends with Hope ostensibly boiling the family’s recently dead cat), Augusten discovers unexpected solace in bed with his new “brother,” the darkly manic, 35-year-old Neil Bookman (Joseph Fiennes). Running with Scissors both exaggerates and underplays the abuse. Compared to the day-to-day lunacy of the house, Bookman seems quiet and attentive, if only because he’s depressed.
Organized by Augusten’s traumas — here mom gives him to Dr. Finch for adoption, there he walks in on her having sex with one of her female poetry students (Kristen Chenowith) — Running with Scissors is both dated and smug. With Oscar-baity and outsized performances, it careens from scene to scene and offers Deirdre’s lesbianism as “evidence” of her illness: her Finch-selected girlfriend Dorothy (an underused Gabrielle Union) competes with Augusten for mom’s attention, at least until Bookman stands up for him, in his way: “You fucking Sapphic bitch, you need a fucking bone up your ass.” This passes for gallantry.
For all its attention to the abuse, the film is not much interested in recovery. And it is in this context that the terminally sensible Agnes saves Augusten. When she advises him to hang on to his “dream” (he wants to be a cosmetologist) because “Dreams get you through the hard times,” her face shows that she’s had both. It’s unclear whether he recognizes her as the mother he left.