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By Ann Morrow

Running With Scissors

Directed by Ryan Murphy

Adapted from the memoir by Aug usten Burroughs, Running With Scissors is about a boy growing up in the 1970s in a dysfunctional family from hell. Actually, it’s two families from hell: Augusten (Joseph Cross) is given up for adoption by his mother, Deirdre (Annette Bening), to her psychiatrist while in his early teens. In the movie adapted and directed by Ryan Murphy, Deirdre dominates the screen as well as Augusten’s life. She writes mediocre poetry and fantasizes about becoming as famous as Anne Sexton. She picks horrendous fights with her husband, Norman (Alec Baldwin), a passive alcoholic. Her feminist, anti-establishment, self- actualization diatribes are shrieked uncontrollably: In one early scene, she hysterically analyzes Norman’s homicidal misogyny while he’s knocked out cold, and bleeding from her spiteful attack.

As a child, Augusten is supportive and proud of his mother’s “artistic” ambitions, but as he grows older, her attacks on his father make it difficult for him to live a normal life. Enter Dr. Finch (Brian Cox), who prescribes Valium for Deirdre and asks about her bowel movements. Due to Murphy’s direction, it’s one of the film’s most ghastly-funny scenes; Murphy is even more incisive with Deirdre’s poetry club, where she intimidates her suburban friends with her hipster espousal of self-expressive anger.

The first half of Running with Scissors alternates between unnerving black satire and queasy social realism targeted with accuracy at the sick side of the 1970s. Dr. Finch manipulates Norman out of the marriage, and Deirdre, zonked on a medicine cabinet’s worth of prescription pills, agrees to let him adopt Augusten. The Finch household is like an EST-and-polyester version of a Bosch nightmare, and Murphy takes on too much of the memoir: Finch’s crazy-quilt family encompasses (a tired-looking) Gwyneth Paltrow as his older, and certifiably insane daughter; Evan Rachel Wood as his vampy but somewhat stable younger daughter; Jill Clayburgh as his worn-out, doormat wife; and Joseph Fiennes as his adopted son, a gay biker psycho. Cox steals the movie as the criminally unhinged but convivial doctor, distorting the seriousness of the satire.

Mild-mannered like his father, Augusten tries to make the best of his appalling circumstances, and his even keel is admirable. But as the film goes on too long, from one drug-induced crisis to another, the bizarre strata of his young adulthood (psychoanalysis, pharmacology, feminism, patriarchal privilege, the sexual revolution, the counterculture, and the disintegration of the nuclear family) blurs into a strung-out blob of strobe-lit lava. Like Augusten, many viewers may find themselves just waiting for it to be over.

Separated at Birth?

Infamous

Directed by Douglas McGrath

Of course, the first question that comes to mind is, “Was it as good as Capote?” It’s an unfair question; insofar as Infamous—or any movie—deserves to be judged on its own merits. But the fact that both movies share not only a subject, writer Truman Capote, but a very specific section of the subject’s life, the years during which he worked on his groundbreaking true-crime classic In Cold Blood, makes the comparison hard to escape. The additional fact that Infamous was released so shortly after Capote was nominated for Best Picture and Phillip Seymour Hoffman won the Oscar for his portrayal of the flamboyant author makes the comparison nigh inevitable. So, let’s get it out of the way:

No. Infamous is not as good as Capote.

Where Capote was minimal, austere, even bleak, Infamous is garish, flip, even silly. Where Capote focused on the writer as a writer, Infamous focuses on the writer as a personality. Both Hoffman, in the former, and Toby Jones in the latter, do commendable jobs in capturing Capote’s mincing postures and effeminate speech (in fact, Jones is rather frighteningly similar in physical appearance), and both present Capote as a befuddling mix of qualities: driven, affectionate, self-destructive, pompous, insecure, eloquent, grandiose, charming, self-absorbed. But where Hoffman’s Capote was a compelling puzzle, Jones’ is a cloying punchline.

Jones is not solely at fault. It is clearly writer-director Douglas McGrath’s opinion that Capote was laughable. There are not enough a’s in flaaaaaming to describe the scenes in which Capote first travels to conservative Kansas to dig up info on the multiple homicide that will be the basis of his book. And the Kansans themselves (including the usually spot-on Jeff Daniels) are portrayed as slack-jawed bumpkins. These bits play less like a movie than a scene from a formulaic sitcom, Alf with a lisp. You can almost hear the laugh track and theme music to That Darn Gay!

If there were any chance of the audience missing the point that Capote is ridiculous, Sandra Bullock is on hand, as Capote’s lifelong friend Harper Lee, shaking her head in comic exasperation at each of his faggy excesses. Terrified, apparently, that even this blatant handholding will fail, McGrath uses repeated jump cuts to underscore that Capote is a lying, untrustworthy, flighty gossip: He has Capote swear that he will do, or not do, a particular thing then he immediately cuts to him doing exactly the opposite of what he has sworn—again and again and again.

So, taken on its own merits, Infamous is slight and unserious. It is also predictable, which renders it unserious but unfunny. However, since the unavoidable comparison has already been made, it does provide an interesting counterpart—a kind of Rashomon alternate view—to Capote. There are subtle differences in interpretation and dramatic differences in the presentation of “fact” that serve as reminders that creative nonfiction—including the biopic—is a particularly slippery category. Taken together, the films may be an appropriate homage to a pretty slippery character.

—John Rodat

Blunted Message

Catch a Fire

Directed by Phillip Noyce

You’d have to be brain-dead not to recognize the obvious parallels between the South African apartheid of Phillip Noyce’s movie Catch a Fire and current debates about interrogation techniques and the rights of political prisoners. Watching as Patrick Chamusso (Derek Luke), an oil-refinery foreman who is also avowedly apolitical, is tortured for a crime that we, the audience, know he didn’t commit, is the stuff of nightmares, especially when the interrogator, Nic Vos (Tim Robbins) is a quasi-sympathetic fellow countryman. For Vos, who is with the Police Security Branch, South Africa is just as much his home, if not more, than for Patrick, who hails from Mozambique. The delicacies of race and notions of home and country are intertwined tautly throughout the tale of Chamusso’s evolution to political terrorist.

That said, Shawn Slovo’s script leaves something to be desired. For all the inherent drama and suspense, the movie feels a little formulaic. A huge chunk of suspense is stripped away when you remember just who is narrating it. Luke, who was mesmerizing in the title role in Antwone Fisher, is sometimes compelling, as when he struggles to regain his dignity in the midst of the degradation of the interrogation cell, or when he begs Vos, man to man, not to reveal a past infidelity to his wife Precious (Bonnie Henna). But as a man hell-bent on revenge and redemption, he comes off less solidly.

Noyce’s best moments are those in which the human element comes to the fore, in which what matters most in a given instant is not so much the political reality but quixotic human emotions. The way in which Vos plays not just with Patrick’s mind, but especially the proud and temperamental Precious, is masterful and chilling, far more compelling and demonstrably more disturbing than the so-called action sequences. While the filmmakers aren’t quite successful at depicting Vos in the sort of multidimensional way that would auger complexity—and possibly even a grain of sympathy—it is downright creepy watching this master torturer sing peace songs with his family and strum his guitar.

Unfortunately, much of the good stuff dissipates at film’s end, when the real-life Chamusso talks about his life today. It’s an ending that feels tacked on, as if the moviemakers wanted to make sure we went home feeling happy—rather than risk making us think long and hard about the actions we condone, if only by our collective silence.

—Laura Leon


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