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Knight at the Movies: Running With Scissors and The Prestige
by Richard Knight, Jr.
2006-10-25

This article shared 4441 times since Wed Oct 25, 2006
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Joseph Cross and Annette Bening in Running with Sisters. Alec Baldwin and Annette Bening in Running with Sisters.

_________

As far back as the 1938 Best Picture Oscar winner You Can't Take It With You, audiences have loved watching the crazy antics of eccentric but lovable families. At some point, eccentric families at the movies stopped being quite so innocently funny and morphed into the black comedies of dysfunction of today. These movies—American Beauty, The Chumscrubber and Little Miss Sunshine—are direct descendants of the charming eccentrics of old but have an acrid tang that springs from the rampant suburban malaise they satirize.

Running With Scissors, based on the coming-of-age chronicle ( amidst a houseful of nut cases ) by writer Augusten Burroughs, is just such a picture. Considering the source material, it's no surprise to find it portrays the Mt. Everest of dysfunctional families. But it also makes perfect sense that this movie, based on the memoirs of a gay man and directed by Ryan Murphy—the openly gay creator-writer-director of the most homoerotic show on TV, Nip/Tuck—would have a gay sensibility, and it does—though that's not immediately apparent. Indeed, it may appear that in shifting the movie's focus away from the book's central gay affair and graphic details of the sexual encounters between Augusten and the alternately creepy/sexy Bookman ( played to perfection by Joseph Fiennes ) , Murphy has watered down the film's gay content.

It turns out that Murphy has zeroed in on the book's most fascinating character, Deirdre, who is Augusten's mother. The decision to shift the movie away from Augusten the narrator, who is sweet and put-upon, and to the much more compelling and overbearing mother is like seeing Great Expectations with Miss Havisham as the star of the piece and with Pip as more of a mascot. Tempestuous Margo Channing is endlessly more interesting than conniving Eve Harrington and Deirdre is more riveting than Augusten. Was it Murphy's gay sensibility that helped tip the balance ever so slightly in Deirdre's direction? Or just plain good sense? Either way, it—and the performance of Annette Bening in the role—elevates the movie beyond the book. And to Murphy's credit ( and Joseph Cross' sweet-natured, befuddled performance, ) the Augusten character doesn't get lost in the shuffle.

The story commences during the mid-'70s when the marriage of Deirdre, a frustrated housewife to heavy drinker Norman ( played by Alec Baldwin in a very creepy turn ) is falling apart. Deirdre has the soul and temperament of a poet but none of the talent to justify her outrageous narcissism. Young Augusten, the couple's only son, is ignored by the father and used by the mother as a gofer, a forced audience member for her dreadful poems and shoulder to cry on after multiple rejections from publishers. One fateful day, the couple attends a therapy session with Dr. Finch ( Brian Cox ) , who immediately suggests intensive therapy of five hours a day to save the marriage. Norman demurs but Deirdre intuitively understands that here is the sympathetic voice she's been looking for all along.

Taken with Dr. Finch and getting in touch with her budding lesbianism, Deirdre convinces herself that the increasingly troubled Augusten would be better off with the doctor's family and signs adoption papers to make it happen. It's at this point that the movie shifts to Augusten and the Addams Family crazies—the mother, Agnes ( Jill Clayburgh ) , who watches Dark Shadows and eats dog food; Hope ( Gwyneth Paltrow ) , the weird older daughter who worships the father; and Natalie ( Rachel Evan Wood ) , the younger, sluttish daughter who becomes Augusten's co-conspirator. The menagerie also includes the schizophrenic Bookman ( Joseph Fiennes ) , who becomes the teenaged Augusten's first lover. The house they live in—one of those dilapidated mansions at the end of the block with the bathtubs and other junk piled up in the front yard—is a triumph for set designer Matthew Ferguson.

The craziness builds ( to the tune of some snappy '70s tunes—the movie's musical pop culture references are pitch perfect ) until Augusten finds an unlikely ally in Agnes and the movie's inevitable conclusion. What resonate after this fun house of a movie ( which is much sunnier than the book or Murphy's work on the sour but sexy Nip/Tuck ) is over are the bravura performances of Bening, Cross and, in a welcome comeback, Clayburgh. Murphy's script has given Bening a role that's nearly as delicious as the one Frank Perry crafted for Faye Dunaway in 1981. But this time the camp is built into the role and it's not likely that Bening will have to spend years distancing herself from her triumphant, multi-faceted portrayal the way that Dunaway has for hers of Joan Crawford. This Mommie Dearest of a part might even find Bening at long last in the Oscar winner's circle. Now wouldn't that be a triumph for Murphy's covert gay sensibility as well?

_____

There are three elements to a magic trick: the pledge, the turn and finally, The Prestige. This last, in which the magician brings back the disappearing man and reunites the pretty lady with the rest of her torso, is also the title of director Christopher Nolan's much-anticipated follow-up to Batman Begins. The story, set in England at the turn of the 20th century, pits two nascent magicians, Alfred and Rupert ( played by matinee idols Christian Bale and Hugh Jackman ) , against one another. Michael Caine narrates the picture, which tracks their rivalry for fame and the bed of Scarlet Johansson. Each begins under the auspices of a master magician ( played by real-life conjurer Ricky Jay ) but their friendship dissolves when Alfred—the hot-headed know-it-all—ties the wrong knot on Rupert's wife ( played by Piper Perabo ) and she drowns in a glass tank in front of the audience's eyes.

The rest of the picture consists of one getting the upper hand on the other. Though the movie is visually stunning, sumptuously designed and well acted, it's too long and, worse, none of the tricks dazzle or delight ( as they did in the similar release The Illusionist ) and neither magician takes any pleasure in his profession. Stripped of the visual and acting pyrotechnics ( including an interesting cameo by David Bowie ) , this sour apple of a movie is revealed as nothing more than a typical straight male version of one-upmanship, i.e., 'who's got the biggest dick.' Not even Bale and Jackman playing this tiresome game can make you care about the outcome for long.

Check out my archived reviews at www.windycitytimes.com or www.knightatthemovies.com . Feedback can be left at the latter Web site.


This article shared 4441 times since Wed Oct 25, 2006
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