Running with crazies
An old fairy tale set in ?70s America

by Judith Reynolds

he psychiatrist at the center of “Running With Scissors” repeatedly prods a bewildered patient: “Express your pain.” The same patient later orders fellow poets: “Let out your rage.” Is it any wonder that everyone in this quirky and gripping film lets it all hang out? Is it any wonder chaos reigns?

Welcome to America in the ‘70s – that devilish child of the ‘60s. Many of the bizarre hallmarks of that benighted decade find their way into Ryan Murphy’s movie, now playing at the Abbey Theatre through Jan. 4.

“Scissors” is based on Augusten Burroughs’ horrific memoir of growing up at a time when the culture seemed to be flying apart. Remember a drug culture gone wild, the beginnings of big-time corporate greed, feminist consciousness-raising and male backlash? Remember shag rugs deep enough to hide crumbling family values?

Director Murphy has brought to life a coming-of-age story set in a time of conflicting social experiments. The film begins as a sweet 6-year-old, Augusten (Jack Kaeding), willingly acts as his mother’s imaginary audience for a poetry reading. Deirdre Burroughs (por

trayed by Annette Bening on a straight road to madness) has declared herself a brilliant artist. Nothing, certainly not her husband or child, will stand in her way to fame and success. Her narcissism illuminates what the late American historian Christopher Lasch coined as the “Me Generation.”

Deirdre’s delusions of grandeur and her inability to function as either a mother or wife, lead her to Dr. Finch (Brian Cox). In this modern fairy tale, Deirdre is the ugly, cruel mother and Finch is Bluebeard. He even has a castle, a pink antebellum monstrosity with a secret room where unspeakable things happen. Between these two pillars of insanity, the adolescent Augusten (Joseph Cross) must navigate on his own.

Finch lures patients into his lair by telling them what they want to hear and giving them drugs. Deirdre, he assures her, is extraordinarily gifted and must sacrifice everything for her art. That includes sacrificing her child, another murky trope from the world of fairy tales.

Like Bluebeard, Finch has coaxed others into his kingdom, formally adopting other children of wealthy, misguided patients. By Augusten’s 15th birthday, the boy has weathered many nightmares — Bookman (Joseph Fiennes), a predatory “brother” who seduces the newly declared gay Augusten; and two disturbed “sisters.” Hope (Gwyneth Paltrow) and Faith (Evan Rachel Wood) have their own midnight secrets.

Finch’s pathetic wife, Agnes (Jill Clayburgh), stumbles about the domain like a traumatized servant. You don’t know if she’s mad, sad or both, until Agnes and Augusten have the last of three quiet conversations. Without any vanity, Clayburgh delivers a touching performance, bringing a much-needed human connection to Augusten’s bleak life.

Critics have chomped on Murphy for presenting a jumpy, scatter-shot black comedy that loses its edge somewhere in the middle. True, there’s an abundance of crosscut editing, sudden blackouts and a preference for seemingly incongruous music. It’s that particular technique, troping, that underscores the ironic tone. The use of seemingly alien music to set up one mood then quickly shift to another has a deep history in comic theater and opera. It flourished in 18th-century farce, and we continue to see it in many contemporary films. It’s meant to be jarring.

One of the best examples features Nat King Cole’s syrupy “Stardust Melody,” innocently leading into a grotesque scene of a mental breakdown. The contrast is intended to be bitterly ironic.

This is a strong movie, more darkly absurd than comedic. It’s about tragic things: parental failure, vulnerability and betrayal. And ultimately it’s about human resilience. Burroughs survived the crazy ’70s. So did we all. •