The appeal for actors of movies about hideously dysfunctional people is obvious. They’re fun to play, and always good for awards consideration. Which script would you go for, the umpty-umpth “meet cute” romantic comedy or the one where you play a wildly disturbed and pathologically self-centered character and get to say things like, “Let’s dig up the cat we buried. I can hear him saying he is not really dead.” The appeal for audiences of stories that teeter on the edge between horror, tragedy, and over-the-top comedy is less clear. And in this movie, brilliant performances are not enough to make up for a story that is no deeper than the perky 70’s hits on the soundtrack. The actors fill the characters with life and conflict. But they can’t fill the movie, which feels hollow.
There are movies where the heroes take on aliens or Nazis or fire-breathing dragons. And then there are movies where the heroes take on something really scary — family. Just about everyone at one time or another has rolled his eyes and confided to a friend that his family is really nutty. Perhaps that is why we are drawn to stories about families that really are crazy, whether benign and charmingly light-hearted (the Oscar-winning You Can’t Take it With You), mordantly funny (The Addams Family), profoundly tragic (The Glass Menagerie, Long Day’s Journey Into Night, both based on the authors’ own families), gothic (Hush, Hush, Sweet Charlotte), or downright deranged (Nothing But Trouble). This story seems to have a bit of all of the above. It’s based on writer Augusten Burroughs’ memoir of his childhood. While there have been some allegations and even a lawsuit filed by some of the people he wrote about alleging that some of the wilder stuff is not true, but it is hard to imagine anyone making this stuff up.
Augusten is raised by a distant father (Alec Baldwin) and a narcissistic mother (Annette Benning) who treats him as something between a co-conspirator and a lackey. As long as he tells her what she wants to hear (he assures her that her poem is just what the New Yorker is looking for), she allows him to skip school, polish his allowance, and fix her hair. But his parents’ marriage fractures and his mother becomes increasingly unstable — and increasingly in the thrall of a charismatic therapist named Dr. Finch (Brian Cox), who gives her drugs. She gives custody of Augusten to Finch.
Finch’s home is filthy. His family is a cracked parody of Augusten’s sitcom-inspired fantasy. They speak casually, even smugly, about the most deranged concepts and events. At one level, they enjoy trying to shock each other. Perhaps they enjoy trying to shock themselves; at least they will feel something. But other than Finch himself, who seems lost in delusions and denial (but not so lost that he can’t play power games), each of them wants desperately to be “normal.” But each of them feels so damaged that “normal” is out of reach.
Finch’s wife Agnes (Jill Clayburgh) is kindly but fragile and overwhelmed. One daughter, Hope (Gwyneth Paltrow) adores her father and is jealous of anyone else who has his attention or affection. She insists her cat talks to her. The other daughter, Natalie (Evan Rachel Wood), enjoys being outrageous. She is bitterly hurt and dreams of leaving to go to college. Another lost soul “adopted” by the Finches, Neil Bookman (Joseph Fiennes) seduces and abuses Augusten, who is so hungry for love and attention that he holds on.
Augusten keeps hoping one of his parents will come for him, but his mother is always caught up in a drug- or love- or grandiosity-induced haze and his father is distant. Ultimately, he has to discover on his own who he wants to be and how to get there.
Parents should know that this film is about very dysfunctional and abusive families and includes a great deal of inappropriate, narcissistic, and deeply disturbing behavior. Characters use very explicit language, smoke, drink, and abuse drugs in the presence of children. Underage characters have sex with predatory adults. A character attempts suicide at the direction of another character.
Families who see this movie should talk about the way that Burroughs turned the tragic events of his life into a work of art and a bridge to take him to a place of stability and satisfying work and relationships.