The bar is dauntingly high for blaming-mom memoirs, but Augusten Burroughs’s Running With Scissors delivers its unkind cuts from a singular vantage. The narrator is an adoring gay boy who loses his Auntie Mame–ish (and bipolar) mother to the seventies, an era in which loony-tunes therapists counseled patients to act out their anger instead of learning to manage it, and to indulge their “inner children”—sometimes to the point of abandoning their families. A quarter-century on, Burroughs has learned to manage his anger. He chronicles his surreal upbringing in a voice that’s craftily deadpan, so that each outlandish revelation makes you gasp with a mixture of horror and vindictive glee. You feel at once, “Omigod, the poor helpless child” and “You are so burned, you bad mom!”
Ryan Murphy’s jaunty screen version of Running With Scissors proves that nothing consecrates one’s depiction of a narcissistic mother like having her embodied by Annette Bening. Bening’s specialties are (a) insane people and (b) actresses. No, the two aren’t synonymous, but for Bening, the two exist on a continuum. Her genius is for locating the actress within—the person struggling to translate her inchoate feelings into performance. As Deirdre Burroughs, she spreads the wings of her irradiated yellow caftan and declaims her latest unprintable confessional poem, then turns to her son, eyes shining, and asks, “Was it powerful? Was it emotionally charged?” Deirdre needs to dramatize her lifelong oppression by males, among them Augusten’s alcoholic and emotionally unavailable dad (Alec Baldwin). There’s nothing unusual about the absent-dad-overbearing-mom household: The shrinks once said it was the garden-variety gay-male-engendering environment. The source of Burroughs’s bitterness is that his mother didn’t stick around.
In the film, it’s when Augusten’s bond with his fame-seeking mom is strongest—when he fantasizes he’s Deirdre giving poetry readings to packed auditoriums—that she has a particularly ghastly breakdown (the music goes out of Bening’s voice) and her psychiatrist makes a house call. Murphy shoots the arrival of Dr. Finch (Brian Cox) as if he’s Father Merrin come to exorcise Deirdre’s demons, which is cute but upside-down: Encouraging this sick woman to plumb her dark side is like making up a guest room for her demons to reside.
The director does gravitate toward the cute, but that’s in keeping with the detachment of his source: The feelings of loss and alienation are woven into the portrait of the time—into the otherworldly fluorescent seventies fashions and sitcoms in which its hero seeks escape. A director doesn’t have to melodramatize a moment like Deirdre’s parting from Augusten after depositing him in the squalid, chaotic Finch manse, with leaning towers of filthy dishes and teenagers toying with electroshock machines—a household that Gomez Addams would find unhealthily permissive. (Deirdre’s smug feminist mantras are about as apt as mad Alex’s in Fatal Attraction: Had Augusten renounced his homosexuality, Running With Scissors would make a textbook neoconservative attack on the counterculture.)
Running With Scissors would be more involving with a less distanced Finch, the therapist whose external world (mousy hunchback wife, slavish and semi-delusional older daughter, patients adopted like stray cats) expresses the disorder within. Burroughs describes a man with a reassuring, Santa Claus warmth, but Cox is a frosty actor with a gift for making you laugh at his creepy unknowability, and he inhabits a different plane altogether from Joseph Cross’s Augusten.
Augusten is a passive role, but Cross gets a lot of dramatic mileage out of his hurting blue eyes and throbbing Adam’s apple. Running With Scissors ends with its hero growing up and moving on, but it doesn’t seem finished until Murphy shows you the real Burroughs sitting side-by-side with his fictional counterpart. This coming-of-age story is cathartic only when it spells out the idea that writing a best-selling memoir is the best revenge.