Mommy Weirdest

Illustration by Anooj Khan & SonsPhoto: Suzanne Tenner/Courtesy of TriStar Pictures, Inc.

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.

Scene from Flags of Our Fathers.

From moms who undermine us to dads who lift us up: Flags of Our Fathers, directed by Clint Eastwood from the best seller by James Bradley (with Ron Powers), is a wrenching elegy to the “greatest generation”—a film with enough breadth and spectacle and poetry to transcend some clunky storytelling. At its center is the immortal Joe Rosenthal photograph of six men, their faces obscured, struggling to raise a flag at the top of Mount Suribachi on the Japanese island of Iwo Jima—one of the most inspiring images ever captured on film. Without discrediting the power of that image, the movie (like the book) goes on to expose its petty genesis and dispiriting aftermath.

The movie begins with a voice-over: Harve Presnell (sounding eerily like Bob Dole) asserting that “every jackass thinks he knows what war is.” What follows is a scene so painful that it’s hard to wrap one’s mind around it: A medic (Ryan Phillippe) tries to keep an American’s innards from spilling out, then grinds his bayonet into the stomach of a Japanese soldier leaping over a ridge. This nightmarish parallel isn’t carried through the rest of the film, but everything that follows is suffused by it—by the irreconcilability of the fact of war with the slogans that are meant to sell bonds.

A director known for his casual approach (little rehearsal, few takes, setups that summon comparisons to a jazz musician’s affectless cool), Eastwood has never directed anything this fluid or upsettingly beautiful. His co-producer is Steven Spielberg, and there are similarities between the slaughters on the beaches of this Iwo Jima and the Omaha of Saving Private Ryan. But the way Eastwood backs off from splattery spectacle is moving and decent—the carnage is just enough to haunt you and not enough to punish you. He leaches the color out of the images, leaving a sickly green and the sharp contrast of black and white, and he has composed a spare and melancholy score that makes even victory a loss. We hardly ever glimpse the tens of thousands of Japanese hidden in tunnels in that mountain—the bloodshed is horrifyingly disconnected. (Eastwood simultaneously shot a forthcoming film from the Japanese perspective, Letters From Iwo Jima, that will take us inside that mountain.)

Flags of Our Fathers appears at first to be at cross-purposes with itself. It says the men who returned from the war were not heroes, then it goes on to show them sacrificing themselves for one another with superhuman heroism. That’s where the photo comes in. The mystery of the planting of that flag is carried by the three surviving subjects (played by Phillippe, Jesse Bradford, and Adam Beach)—none of whom feels entitled to the adulation he receives on the home front. There’s a trace of The Right Stuff in the depiction of real men who blanch under the efforts of their handlers to market them for purposes of political propaganda. But The Right Stuff astronauts weren’t eaten alive by survivors’ guilt.

It’s when the movie gets into the specifics of that guilt that we get Eastwood’s familiar ham-handed touch. As the Native American Ira Hayes, whose feelings of inadequacy (reinforced by rampant prejudice against his people) drive him further into drunken disillusionment, Beach has to emote in a vacuum: It’s the sort of performance that gets nominated for awards because you can’t escape the acting. Phillippe is a study in colorlessness, though, and with the exception of Barry Pepper as a charismatic sergeant and John Slattery as a brusque and fast-talking PR guy, the rest of the cast blurs together.

The screenplay, by William Broyles Jr. and Paul Haggis, needed another draft: Toward the end, after several narrators have come and gone, the author James Bradley (played by Tom McCarthy) shows up, and we’re meant to realize that he has been interviewing Iwo Jima vets for a book after the death of his dad (George Grizzard, who’s supposed to be Ryan Phillippe 50 years on). The infelicities don’t matter. Flags of Our Fathers fits into Eastwood’s late-in-life agenda—to make violence, even in self-defense, seem soul-killing, and to expose the gulf between reality and myth. After this, how can we ever again make our peace with the iconography of war?

The vocabulary of mainstream movies has changed radically in the past decade: Now, when filmmakers leap back and forth in time, radically shift perspectives, juxtapose narrative lines with no apparent connection, and withhold key information, audiences rarely question what they’re seeing. Maybe they ought to. In their last collaboration, 21 Grams, the director Alejandro González Iñárritu and screenwriter Guillermo Arriaga did syntactical acrobatics to disguise what a dreary and exploitive little soap opera they’d made. Their new movie, Babel, is more mysterious and less coherent.

An American (Cate Blanchett) on a tour bus in Morocco is severely wounded by a bullet out of nowhere (it comes from two boys playing with a rifle), and her husband (a bearded, puffy Brad Pitt doing a George Clooney Oscar run) kneels for hour after agonizing hour at her side in a remote village, trying to keep her alive until help comes. Meanwhile, two cute San Diego kids are whisked to rural Mexico when their babysitter (Adriana Barraza), left mysteriously to her own devices, feels compelled to attend her son’s wedding. Across the world, a deaf-mute Japanese teenager (Rinko Kikuchi) removes her undies and flashes her privates at a group of boys—and then at anyone who’ll look at her.

The theme appears to be Americans who are scarily vulnerable in the impoverished Third World—but what does that disturbed Japanese girl have to do with anything? There is a connection, it turns out, but a tenuous one, and when the filmmakers start playing fancy tricks with the timeline, you might be tempted to throw up your hands. Tricky storytelling is an irritant when you can’t trust the storyteller.

Just as untrustworthy is the storytelling in The Prestige, a pretzeled tale of rival turn-of-the-century magicians (Christian Bale and Hugh Jackman) who play increasingly lethal tricks on one another. The tit-for-tat scenario ought to be wildly entertaining, but the magic is crude, the characters flyweight, and the story protracted and unpleasant. As his budgets have soared, the brilliant director Christopher Nolan (Memento, Insomnia) has been unable to control the bloat. The only thing to emerge from The Prestige with any, er, prestige is The Illusionist—which seems more than ever a miracle of elegance and wit.

Flags of Our Fathers follows James Bradley’s quest to unearth his father’s legacy. Clint Eastwood’s own father, Clinton Eastwood Sr., was a steelworker before he lost his job in the Depression. He is not, as urban legend goes, comic Stan Laurel (of Laurel and Hardy). Laurel bore a slight resemblance to Eastwood Sr. and had a child born on the same day as was Clint (May 31, 1930), but the two aren’t related. Six of Eastwood’s seven children have acted in his films—his youngest son, Scott, makes his acting debut as a Marine in Flags of our Fathers. Kathryn, the only Clint kid not to have been in one of his films, appeared on TV as the 2005 Miss Golden Globe.

Running With Scissors
Directed by Ryan Murphy. Tristar. R.

Flags of our Fathers
directed by Clint Eastwood. DreamWorks. R.

Directed by Alejandro González Iñárritu. Paramount Vantage. R.

The Prestige
Directed by Christopher Nolan. Touchstone Pictures. PG-13.


Mommy Weirdest