REVIEW: Running with Scissors [2006]

“Hug back”

The trailers for this adaptation of Augusten Burroughs’ memoirs, Running with Scissors, looked like an offbeat, quirky comedy. I had heard good things about the novel and the cast looked amazing. However, I am very happy I didn’t spend the money to see it in theatres. This film ended up being a sprawling series of uncomfortable events with no real narrative thread to be building towards a satisfying conclusion. If Burroughs himself came up to me and said just half of this film actually happened to him, I would laugh in his face and call him a liar. If we were to believe this is what he went through as a 15-year-old kid, all these people involved would be arrested or committed, never to see the sun again. Also, it seems the filmmakers wanted to make it cool by adding music and splicing it over the script, adding that indie-staple emotional resonance cliché, (the Garden State scream anyone?). When it works it works, and maybe if this movie had been shorter and less of the same thing happening—mother goes crazy, son gets sad and acts out with the shrink’s kids, mother gets better, all is forgiven, repeat—it would have worked better instead of seeming contrived and a cover-up to kill time without needing words to be spoken, (I did like the “Blinded by the Light” moment, however, and the soundtrack was fantastic). In the end, I really could care less for all the characters involved; they were all self-absorbed people without many redeemable qualities between them.

No matter how disappointed I was in the film though, I still would like to read the book. Maybe the gags would seem funnier with a backstory description preceding them. As it is in the movie, the parts that may try to play for laughs fall flat because of the disgust you feel for the oppressive forces involved. True there are some nice bits, but there are more moments where you feel utterly sorry for what is transpiring, as the occurrences aren’t happening to crack a smile, they are results of mental instability and not knowing any better. I feel that the film would have worked better as a full-blown drama, because the acting truly is superb. It is this professionalism and believability in the characters that make you take every situation so seriously, subverting any humor that was trying to be achieved.

Annette Bening is amazing as the mentally corrupt mother. When she is on medication, in a state of misguided bliss, or her true biting cynical self, she is in top form. You feel sorry for what is happening to her and the dream she is reaching for to hopefully gain credibility and be able to stop thinking of herself as crazy. Joseph Cross and Evan Rachel Wood are very believable as well, portraying the two sane people in this crazy world, attempting to make the best of their screwed up situations and keep everything together until the chance to break free finally arrives. The final scene between the two characters over the phone is heartbreakingly real and a long time coming revelation. Brian Cox is also wonderful as Dr. Finch, the patriarch to everyone that comes into his sphere of life. At times his eccentric ways are genius, and at others just prove that he must be insane himself. You never really can get a handle on whether he is truly helping those around him or if he is just making everything worse. The real standouts, though, are Joseph Fiennes and Jill Clayburgh. They are really the only two people in the entire film that I felt sad for. I have never seen Fiennes act this well, usually he is doing straight shots at Shakespearean roles, but here he really encompasses the schizophrenic, soft-spoken Bookman. He is afraid of himself and what he thinks he may be capable of doing, but his love for Augusten is beautiful and heartfelt. As for Clayburgh, she is the heart and soul of the movie. While going through the motions, very zombie-like throughout, she is the only one who truly comprehends what is going on around her, and is desperately trying to keep it all from falling apart.

It is a real shame that all these great performances have been trapped in such a meandering and convoluted film. If only it took itself more seriously, because when the hard moments of reflection came, they were very effective and emotionally real. I wish the script had been tightened into a stronger narrative in which we as an audience cared and wanted to know what would result, rather than filming a page by page reenactment of a journal. There was a great story buried beneath the camera tricks and attempt at humor in a very serious world, but this film did not succeed in telling it. Hopefully the book is a bit more focused and decipherable as a memoir, something that film isn’t really meant to be.

Running with Scissors 5/10 | ★ ★

photography:
[1] Augusten Burroughs (Joseph Cross) and Natalie (Evan Rachel Wood) in Sony Pictures’ Running With Scissors – 2006
[2] A scene from Running with Scissors – 2006

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