There's talk of Annette Bening receiving an Oscar nomination for her performance in "Running With Scissors."
I'd like to put a stop to that talk if I can.
Don't get me wrong -- I think Ms. Bening is a unique talent who has lit up the screen in films such as "The Grifters" and "Bugsy." She's at her best when she's an outwardly sunny charmer with a predator's heart. But here she gives a screeching, self-indulgent performance in a precious, pretentious, relentlessly irritating film about deranged people engaging in twisted acts and telling themselves they're free spirits when in fact they should all be institutionalized.
Directed, written and produced by "Nip/Tuck" creator Ryan Murphy, "Running With Scissors" is an adaptation of Augusten Burroughs' enormously successful memoir, which was more or less a true story of Burroughs' horrifically bizarre childhood in the 1970s. Burroughs spent much of his youth living with an unorthodox psychiatrist and his beyond-eccentric family, and though he changed the name of the family and some identifying characteristics, they have slapped him with a lawsuit alleging defamation, invasion of privacy, emotional distress and fraud. With the release of this movie, they can add, "And turning it all into a crappy wannabe art film."
Who knows how much of what we're seeing is grounded in biographical fact, how much is filtered through the author's artistically tinged memories and how much is the product of Murphy's cinematic interpretation. Whatever the ingredients in this psychedelic hash, the final product is shrill, tasteless and overwrought.
In the opening sequence, we hear the Fifth Dimension's hauntingly beautiful "One Less Bell to Answer" as Bening's Deirdre Burroughs prepares for a poetry reading -- in her living room, which (like most of the sets in this film) is decorated as if the set designer wanted to incorporate every single fad of the period. Young Augusten (Joseph Cross) sits attentively as his mother recites a fairly awful and nearly endless poem. He loves it! She tells him she'll be a famous poet one day, and he believes it to be so.
The whimsy of the day quickly ends when Augusten's dad, Norman (Alec Baldwin), comes barreling in, quickly fixing himself the first of many drinks for the night as he regards his nutball wife and his quirky son as if they're from planet. (He's not far off.) Baldwin gives the film's most grounded performance as a guy who deals with a bipolar wife by drinking himself into a stupor before finally throwing up his hands and running away, if only to save his sanity.
Of course, that leaves little Augusten with only one parent, and a crazy one at that. Deirdre hooks up (in more ways than one) with Dr. Finch (Brian Cox), perhaps the looniest psychiatrist in the history of movies. Finch advocates daily, five-hour sessions, and he has a "masturbation room" adjacent to his office, adorned with photos of world leaders such as Golda Meir and Queen Elizabeth, and I'm not making this up. Finch lives in a dilapidated house filled to the rafters with knickknacks and dirty dishes, and populated by a nuclear family that would make the Addams Family look like the Brady Bunch. Hooked on pills, indulging in lesbian liaisons, still dreaming of becoming a famous poet, Deirdre dumps Augusten on Dr. Finch's doorstep and tells him this will be his new home.
The kid doesn't have a chance. Neither do we.
Gwyneth Paltrow is Dr. Finch's crazy and oldest daughter, who talks of digging up the dead cat and putting it in the stew. Evan Rachel Wood is Dr. Finch's crazy and youngest daughter, a teenager who wears whore-level makeup, tinkers with electro-shock therapy and is heartbroken over an affair with a much older man -- an affair that was sanctioned by dear old Dad. Jill Clayburgh is Dr. Finch's crazy wife, who likes to watch "Dark Shadows" on TV while munching on dog kibbles. Joseph Fiennes is the also crazy Neil Bookman, who has an affair with the underage Augusten, and that makes two predatory, felonious relationships for those of you keeping score at home.
When I call these people "crazy," it's not meant to be flippant. In the real world, mental illness is a serious problem. In this film, it gives everyone a license to run around like characters in a Lewis Carroll story -- set to predictable pop hits from the 1970s like "Blinded by the Light," "Bennie and the Jets" and "The Year of the Cat." There are some dark moments when Deirdre's illness is treated with seriousness -- but even then, we get a movie-perfect manifestation of her madness, as when Augusten ventures into the backyard and sees that for some reason his mother has laid out every piece of silverware and dishes, all of it perfectly arranged under the moonlight. She's crazy, but she's creative.
No matter the level of truth involved in its foundation, "Running With Scissors" is one of the most annoying movies of the year.