Comfortable and Furious



Cinematic arrogance reaches no greater height in all of 2006 than Running With Scissors’ inclusion of an epilogue. In addition to ruining a great Crosby, Stills, & Nash song, the “updates” are so unwarranted — so uncalled for — that the only thing that could salvage the whole fucking mess would be the director’s admission that he, inspired by Augusten Burroughs’ source novel, err, memoir — simply made this shit up. Such a revelation wouldn’t make this self-conscious, obnoxiously exaggerated filth any more tolerable, but at least I wouldn’t have to hear various patrons whisper that at the very least, their childhoods were never that tough. I have no idea if Burroughs’ book is as bad as the movie (I’m sure I’ll never find out), but I think it’s safe to assume that based on what we see with Ryan Murphy’s effort, it’s no less cloying and painfully earnest. Sure, I came in expecting yet another ironic skip down Wes Anderson lane, and to a certain degree that was fulfilled, but unlike that smarmy, hateful bastard, Murphy tries to reach for heartstrings that fled years ago, along with hope, desire, and the belief in my fellow man. I can do many things with characters such as these — hate, loathe, feel superior to, even openly mock with god-like vengeance — but “care about” is simply beyond my understanding. But this is more than a case of misanthropic cynicism winning out over empathy; to expect that eccentrics, lunatics, schizophrenics, and shut-ins deserve my compassion is a far greater crime than my inability to extend a hand in friendship.

This is, after all, a film that features a character named Dr. Finch (Brian Cox), an old coot who lives in a decaying pink mansion with a yard covered in trash and rusted metal. It’s like my neighborhood, only someone inside actually holds a job. He’s the sort of man who, when asked if he wants a cup of Sanka, replies: “I’d like some slices of bologna, with a side of horseradish.” Maybe Groucho Marx could get away with such an utterance, but he played decidedly unreal buffoons with ridiculous monikers, not allegedly real people from some author’s past. To make matters worse, Deirdre Burroughs (Annette Bening) produces exactly that in less than ten seconds. I could rest my case on that incident alone, believing it to be representative of the film’s overarching absurdity, but I’m compelled to go on. Finch also summons his entire family to the toilet to glare at his turd, a magical piece of excrement that is believed to be a sign from God because it points towards heaven. Needless to say, this isn’t remotely humorous, but it has the added insult of being untrue, despite our being told that we are watching clips from a memoir. Finch also keeps a “masturbatorium” in the house, a sacred shrine devoted to the doctor’s self-indulgence. Again, Anderson never brought his bullshit beyond the artifice, so he’s off the hook to a certain degree. His vision is silly and self-important, but at least it’s consistently — and unapologetically — crafted as such. Giving a shit isn’t at all encouraged.

Dr. Finch, though, is but the head of this unspeakable family, also populated by Finch’s wife Agnus (Jill Clayburgh) and his two daughters, Natalie (Evan Rachel Wood) and Hope (Gwyneth Paltrow, in what amounts to a glorified cameo). They exist on another plane altogether, as the good doctor has seen fit to move his practice to the homestead and flatly refuses to keep anything clean. Dishes pile up in the kitchen, floors go unscrubbed, and when Natalie and Augusten (Joseph Cross) decide to pound a hole in the ceiling, father glances at the destruction, nods, and submits his cheerful approval. The scene in question, while eye-rollingly insipid, was actually part of an even more nauseating sequence, where each of the characters — including Deirdre — let out a primal scream, symbolizing (I assume) the director’s belief that letting out a primal scream is indicative of cathartic release. Add to that a sweeping crane shot in the rain, and you can pretend it’s packed with even more emotional insight. In reality, it’s just a pointless exercise in style; a way for the director to play all the rock classics from the 1970s we remember while these silly sots “grow”.

And yet, it is Deirdre who is the worst of all; a woman of such crippling, hyperbolic narcissism that she exceeds — and consumes — all characters ever played by Joan Crawford. I’m assuming that both the book and movie find her as vile as I do, but one never knows. We’ve learned to be so damned forgiving, have we not? Still, she’s everything wrong and horrid and off-the-tracks about the less than savory elements of post-60s feminism: the obsession with self-expression, the endless bouts of therapy, the phony empowerment, the recasting of roles. It’s all well and good to believe that there’s more to life than baking cookies and seeing the kids off to school, but surely there’s more under the sun than pretentious poetry and complexes involving one’s parents. Deirdre is always bellowing about being oppressed, which might be true given that her husband (Alec Baldwin) is an alcoholic, but the theory loses credibility when it’s recognized that tee-totaling sobriety would still be met by her ferocious gaze. It’s easy to hate her, but near the end of the movie, we realize that it’s been too easy, and all Augusten’s ever wanted is a normal, pre-movement mommy to make him Hamburger Helper. It’s chillingly reactionary to be sure, but also reflective of Augusten’s unintentional conceit: that Deirdre’s self-involvement became the one thing she provided to him as a legacy. He is his mother’s son.

I instinctively despise people who write endless reams about their childhoods, as if the life lessons of a chosen few had any relevance to anyone else. Most books, after all, are written by those who believe they have something to impart. Here, though, as with the entire memoir bin, it is enough that he gained a new perspective, as the very uniqueness on display automatically excludes the rest of us not blessed with psychotic mothers who organized each and every dish, utensil, and decoration in the backyard. Is such a tale hinting that crazy is the new normal, and that to have grown up without melodrama, attempted suicides, overdoses, and unwashed relatives who eat dog food is now deemed avoidance or living too comfortably? I’m not sure why so many writers come, or claim to have come, from alternate universes, but it begs a larger question. If all art stems from pathology and self-destruction, then only those burdened by the same pain will be able to relate. It’s like saying that unless your dad beat up your mom at the dinner table, or you were raped by your gym teacher, or were forced to inhale the musty stench of a nun’s vagina, your fate is that of an empty-headed consumer, and more challenging works will be lost on your pampered mind. Perhaps this is why I react so viscerally to movies such as this, resenting the hell out of any vision that dares to pass off the fantastic as the authentically lived. Art is the personal, but to become overly exclusive is to render it irrelevant.

So Augusten is literally given away to the Finch family, Deirdre pursues her craft (and trendy lesbianism), and as if on cue, Augusten announces his homosexuality, as if we hadn’t noticed his passion for doing people’s hair. It is here that I once again pause for a brief retreat to generalizing stereotype. Is it possible to be both gay and a wallflower? Vanity is hardly genetic, but it’s becoming increasingly difficult to find a gay man who doesn’t wallow in self-obsession. Maybe it’s because they’re so much like chicks, but I defy anyone to find a memoir of this type authored by a man who likes pussy. It’s as bankable as the religious preference of a suicide bomber. Maybe more so. But were this not the case, we would be denied Augusten’s sexual relationship with a much older man, who also happens to be schizophrenic. I’m not sure why this side story was even necessary, but it did allow for the umpteenth variation of the post-coital lay-back. You know, where each person in turn flies backwards onto the pillow, as if he’d been fucking on the ceiling or something. One of the arms goes behind the head, while the other flops with head turned toward his/her partner. One appears shocked, almost awed by what has just transpired, while the other, more seasoned lover, brandishes a coy smile. Both, however, are exhausted and peppered with perspiration. Sorry, Murphy, Burroughs, et al; it’s no less tiresome simply because the participants are of the same sex.

As the movie ends, Augusten leaves the Finch estate to pursue a dream in New York. Thankfully, Agnus meets him at the bus stop in order to give him a tin stuffed with cash. And it has a happy ending, after all, because here we are watching a film about that very boy. Strangely, though, despite the movie being set in the latter stages of the Me Decade, we never get the sense that time exists at all. The reference to Jimmy Carter dates it, as do the songs and fashions, but for the most part, there is no larger world. But again, that is the memoir. The world shrinks considerably, almost to the point where context becomes inconceivable. Thankfully, I’ve never encountered such isolated lives; folks who seem oblivious to all politics, culture, and current events. Without an external reality, they turn on each other as ravenous wolves, hungry to feel because they’ve done nothing but bathe in the self. I’m bored by these creeps and never want to see them again, and I’ll say so at the top of my voice, until of course the next one comes down the pike, awaiting my masochistic wrath.