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'Running With Scissors' Gets Its Edge From the Dame

By Stephen Hunter
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, October 27, 2006

"Running With Scissors" may be one of the last "there is nothing like a dame!" movies to be made, as the concept "dame" -- outsize, outlandish, overbearing, yet lovably grand female type -- is on its way out of the social lexicon, and with it, the "dame movie" will soon be a memory.

That's a shame, because one of the subversive pleasures of the movies over the years has been watching senior actresses let 'er rip in their big dame turns. Ethel Merman patented the role on Broadway and moved it to the screen, Bette Davis blew the lights out in three or four shots at it and Gloria Swanson established the archetype for all times. Rosalind Russell made "Mame" synonymous with "Dame," Debbie Reynolds was unsinkable, and Glenn Close has held the modern patent over much of the last two decades.

Annette Bening now goes full-bore dame in "Running With Scissors," but the difference this time is that the dame's damehood is frankly moored in mental illness, not creative eccentricity. This dame is sick as a sick dog on a hot day, if still always perversely amusing, and the story is constructed as a survivor's ordeal, not a colorful picaresque.

The survivor is her son Augusten (played by Joseph Cross, who looks so much like Doogie Howser you wonder why they didn't hire the real Neil Patrick Harris). The source material is the best-selling memoir by an authentic Augusten -- Augusten Burroughs, that is -- who survived not only Ma, but Ma's shrink to whom, in an act of matronly destruction that seems almost unprecedented, she legally consigned him to, then began a lesbian affair.

Some would say the disease afflicting Deirdre was a narcissistic personality disorder, or possibly manic-depression or even a psychosis in the form of unrelenting aggression. I would diagnose it as another terrible affliction: She was brought low by poetry. Deirdre has decided that she is a great poet, that the world is lucky to have her vast gift, and the fact that no magazine, large or small, has deigned to print her verses shows that the world is engaged in a vast plot to deny her the fame and wealth she so clearly deserves.

Son and husband? Talk about being up a creek without a paddle. The hubby, played in alcoholic depression by Alec Baldwin, merely submits until he can take her accusations of betrayal no more, then conveniently disappears. The poor kid is stuck for life.

But if he's stuck with her, she's not stuck with him. In her quest for stability and validation, Deirdre turns herself (and her body and her money) over to the charismatic Dr. Finch (Brian Cox), psychiatrist to the creative.

Finch believes in her, that is the soul of her attraction to him, and in some ways the movie is an indictment of a school of psychiatry that believes expression is more important than self-discipline and that the proper response to any stress is medication. Finch is of the "let-it-all-hang-out" school, a mortal enemy to that force of psychic wreckage called repression, and is loath to indulge in haute bourgeois rituals such as "judgment" (the time, by way of explanation, is the '70s, when indeed a great many things hung out). Thus when Deirdre drops Augusten off, and goes away, he will not condemn her; thus when another of his patients, Neil Bookman (Joseph Fiennes), molests, then seduces, then begins an affair with Augusten, he will not judge that either. He seems to have studied under the famed psychoanalytic theorist Paul McCartney: Let it be, let it be.

When Bening is all wound up and blowing the rafters off as the demented, repulsive/charming, self-deluded Deirdre, the movie has an engine. You may not approve, but the great Bening is so captivating you cannot look away. Alas, as the movie progresses, she seems to be gone longer and longer, leaving it to do little except to chart her poor son's progress in the dilapidated, Addams-Familyesque mansion inhabited by Finch and his hapless family. These sordid folks prove Sartre's dictum that hell is other people.

One daughter (played in a single note of mordancy by Gwyneth Paltrow) starves her cat to death in a plastic laundry basket in the living room, after dipping into the Bible for permission to do so. The other (played by Evan Rachel Wood) talks tough but doesn't do a damned thing. Adopted son "Chester the Molester" -- that is, Bookman, just hangs around looking mopey, but not as mopey as the great Jill Clayburgh, consigned to the long-suffering, put-upon wife role. Nobody has time to do dishes.

The director is Ryan Murphy, who invented the plastic-surgery cable dramedy "Nip/Tuck"; you'd think he'd be able to make the movie funnier or sprightlier. But it's never quite as funny as it wants to be and as far from sprightly as can be imagined; and it's too full of slightly off-key performances. Cross doesn't do much with the big fat role of Augusten, and neither Paltrow nor Fiennes (co-stars in "Shakespeare in Love") registers memorably. But the real disappointment is Cox, who's always been a subversive, sly standout in character roles (in "Manhunter" many years ago he was the first, and some say most memorable Hannibal Lecter). Finch's role needed size and scale, someone who could stand up to the dame at her damiest, yet Bening overwhelms him at every turn. His only weapon is implacable tranquility in the face of Hurricane Deirdre; it becomes feeble after a bit. She stoops to conquer and he doesn't put up much of a fight.

Running With Scissors (120 minutes at area theaters) is rated R for profanity, mild violence, sexual material and scenes of drug use.

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