Running with Scissors

Running with Scissors 

Film review by: Witney Seibold

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Oh, the film just doesn’t work. Not at all. I can see what writer/director Ryan Murphy was shooting for: He wanted a lightly-paced, quirky dramedy (based on real-life memoirs by Augusten Burroughs) full of wild characters who all have their damage and their madness and their fears, but still come across as fun and eccentric and likable. He wanted a talented ensemble of actors cast against type. He wanted to tell a story of how a family unit, not matter how twisted and painful, can survive – if only we all bother to try to understand one another, and forgive each other our oddities. Oh, but we must be able to recognize when we need to help someone else, despite their protestations. 

The problem is that Murphy was so focused on making the characters “quirky” and “eccentric,” that he failed to recognize that they were dark and dangerous, and in many cases, out-and-out insane. He certainly assembled an impressive pedigree. The cast, when read aloud, is dang impressive (Annette Bening, Brian Cox, Alec Baldwin, Gwyneth Paltrow, Joseph Fiennes, Evan Rachel Wood, and the relatively unknown Joseph Cross in the lead). The ballad-stuffed soundtrack should certainly sell. Murphy, though, with his use of brand-new outré pop hits, seemed more determined to lump “Running with Scissors” next to recent wacky-yet-deeply-moving indie films like “Garden State,” than actually bother to put together a coherent narrative. The film wasn’t wacky, it was just unseemly. Nor was it moving. It was just confident that it was doing the right thing at the right time, when it if fact was not. A note to Oscar-seekers (and this film, given its late-year release date of this film and the pedigree of the actors, seems to be desperately targeting Academy members): a good pedigree does not necessarily make a good film.  

The story: Early 1970s. Augusten is a fey little boy who is often kept home from school by his overbearing dreamer of a mother (Bening) to help her prepare poetry readings, and critique her delivery style. If it wasn’t obvious by the name, Augusten is a gay, and his family are rich WASPs. Dad (Baldwin) is detached from all this, already seeing his obviously gay son and obviously insane wife as the biggest mistakes he has made. Dad leaves, mom freaks out. It’s hip to go into therapy right now, and mom calls in the omniscient hand of psychiatry in the form of Dr. Finch (Cox), a smoothtalking total crackpot who advises mom to take drugs and leave her husband.  Mom has soon come to the conclusion that she herself is insane, and Augusten would be happier in the hands of a different parent. That she chooses Dr. Finch as his new adoptive father makes me agree with her self-diagnosis. She also runs off to date other women (in the form of Kristin Chenoweth), chain smoke, and become one of those angry poet women you try to avoid in bookstores. Augusten (now played by Cross) has to acclimatize himself to Dr. Finches extended family of other children he has adopted over the years, including passionate floozy Natalie (Wood) who wants to give him shock treatment for fun, a bible-thumping neat-freak Hope (Paltrow) who digs up and cooks the dead family cat, wife Agnes (Jill Clayburgh) who eats dog kibble and obsessively watches “Dark Shadows”, and, most significantly, a thirtysomething gay leatherboy Neil (Fiennes) who will take Augusten’s virginity.            

These people are all obviously mad (well, Natalie is mildly sane), and Finch, as the film progresses, becomes more and more unstable, until he believes that this own turds are cosmic portents. Mom shows up to visit from time to time, but has shown no sign of becoming well. No one seems to have the slightest clue as to how to treat other human begins. It’s a smorgasbord of neglect and cruelty. Fiennes is woefully miscast as the leatherboy, not having the toughness or the danger that the role requires; his angry face only comes across as pouty.              

I am not reacting negatively, mind you, to the cruelty itself. There are marvelous films about mad human beings subtly torturing one another (try Bergman’s “Persona.” Really, try it). What makes “Running with Scissors” so unpalatable is its own insistence on being likable. It wants us to love its uninteresting/horrible characters so much, that it overlooks some of their more grievous sins. Neil has sex with a minor, and this is never addressed (protection is not brought up either, but then this was the pre-AIDS era). Finch is a hateful and neglectful man, but the authorities are never seriously called. And, most disgustingly, there are constantly tax-collectors coming to the Finch household, looking for what is owed, in a sort of twisted reference to Frank Capra’s “You Can’t Take it With You.” Are we supposed to think this gaggle of wackos is a lovable, bohemian enclave of free-thinkers and independent spirits? I sure hope not. The whole affair is just irritating.  When the finale comes, it’s less of an ambivalent moment, than one of relief that this film is finally over.  

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Published in: on May 11, 2007 at 7:13 pm  Leave a Comment  

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