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Running With Scissors
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by Peter Sobczynski

"Shear Disaster"
1 stars

At the end of “Running With Scissors,” a film based on the best-selling memoir by Augusten Burroughs about the bizarre experiences he endured as a youth thanks to his self-centered and emotionally disturbed mother, a title card informs us that the two are currently estranged. Trust me, if Burroughs thinks he is estranged from his mother now, he only needs to wait a few weeks to really know what estrangement feels like. After all, there is a certain cachet, I suppose, in having your personal life and demons transformed by your son into the deranged center of a book read and celebrated by millions. However, the same cannot be said for having them transformed into a film that is so shrill and off-putting that it makes “Mommie Dearest” look like a model of subtlety and restraint by comparison.

The deranged center that I speak of is Deirdre Burroughs (Annette Bening), a suburban wife and mother who has determined in her mind that she is the next Anne Sexton and refuses to let a little thing like a lack of any discernible talent get in the way of this notion. Instead, she chooses to believe that her husband, Norman (Alec Baldwin), is responsible for stifling her career and life just by his mere presence. “Your mother was meant to be a very famous woman,” she confides in young son Augusten (Joseph Cross) but her inability to do anything more than self-publish a couple of poetry booklets or lead a local housewives poetry group (which appears to exist solely for her to tell everyone in details how bad their work is) drives her increasingly around the bend and Norman to the relative comfort of the bottle. Eventually, manipulative psychiatrist Dr. Finch (Brian Cox) arrives on the scene for couples counseling and, quickly reading the situation, takes Deirdre’s side to such a degree that Norman finally leaves. Sinking his claws in further, Dr. Finch convinces Deirdre that she needs to be alone in order to allow her creative juices to flow at their fullest and as a result, she gives him custody of Augusten.

This strikes the 13-year-old Augusten as insane and he isn’t any more comforted when he arrives at the good doctor’s house and discovers what might have been the result if the good doctors Caligari and Seuss ever decided to co-design an abode. He is even less impressed to find that Finch’s family appears to be even crazier than he is. Wife Agnes (Jill Clayburgh) is a near-catatonic zombie who sits on the sofa watching “Dark Shadows” while scarfing up dog kibble. Older and more favored daughter Hope (Gwyneth Paltrow) is a self-confessed “Bible-dipper” who spends much of her spare time talking to her pet cat, Freud. Younger daughter Natalie (Evan Rachel Wood) has decided to fight weirdness with weirdness and spends her time playing with the discarded electroshock equipment. There is also Neil Bookman, a weird boarder/patient of Finch’s who eventually becomes Augusten’s lover. Despite the strangeness around him, Augusten eventually begins to settle into what passes for a normal routine but whenever he does, Deirdre always pops up, usually while popping several of the medications that Finch has over-prescribed her, to throw everything into flux once again. This cycle continues until the point where Deirdre finally goes over the deep end, Finch is revealed to be essentially a fraud and Augusten must summon up the courage to break away from all of them if he is ever to have a life of his own.

I have not read “Running With Scissors”–as a rule, I try to avoid “personal memoirs” written by people who have done nothing else but write personal memoirs about overcoming their screwed-up lives like the plague or Oprah (whose audience presumably lapped up the twisted details of his life with the same zeal that they once embraced James Frey)–but I suspect that the element of the book that resonated with its fans was not the litany of strange and painful situations that Burroughs experienced but rather the voice that he used in recounting them. Whatever tone he used on the page, it is presumably missing from the painfully smug adaptation it has received here from writer-director Ryan Murphy (making his leap to the big screen after creating “Nip/Tuck”). If I had to guess, I would surmise that Murphy was trying for something that would come across as half early John Waters and half “The Royal Tenenbaums” but it comes off more along the lines of an especially sour television show. The various characters are defined only by their respective quirks and are never developed further, the scenes veer between tense drama and weirdo comedy without showing any flair for either approach or an ability to transition between the two and when Murphy is stuck for a way to make sure that viewers are feeling the way that they are supposed to be (which is quite often), he slathers one pop tune after another in an attempt to convey musically what he wasn’t able to do dramatically. (This may not be the first film to use the bathetic CSN&Y standard “Teach Your Children” but it may well be the first time that the song turned out to be one of the least insufferable things about the film it was featured in.) Most damaging and significant is the fact that I never found myself caring for a single moment about any of the characters other than Augusten’s father and that is only because he at least had the sense to get the hell away from everyone else.

Murphy’s inability to find a consistent tone also extends to the performances as well. That has to be the reason because I can’t think of another reason how you could round up a cast this good and get virtually nothing out of them in return. Brian Cox, a great actor whose performances have ranged from the cheerful goofiness of stuff like “Super Troopers” and “Rushmore” to the best Hannibal Lecter ever seen on film (in Michael Mann’s “Manhunter”), is a disaster as Dr. Finch–he ramps up the weirdness but never lets us see the seductive and soothing qualities that he must have also possessed. As the friendly neighborhood pederast, Joseph Fiennes is okay towards the end when he is supposed to be strange and creepy but he is unfortunately just as strange and creepy throughout the entire film. Paltrow and Wood are both basically wasted in roles that the film essentially forgets about at a certain point. (If you thought that Paltrow’s presence in “Infamous” was inexplicable, wait until you get a load of her here.) In the showy central role of Deirdre, the usually reliable Annette Bening does everything but flat-out ask the audience for an Oscar but the result is one of the least interesting performances that she has ever delivered–it is pitched so far over-the-top that it feels more like a drag queen doing his Bening impersonation. The only reasonably effective performance on display here comes from Jill Clayburgh as the burned-out wife of Dr. Finch who is nevertheless able to find the fire within her when the madness becomes too much to deal with–she is actually so good in the part that it makes you wonder how much more effective the film might have been if she had been given the role of Deirdre.

“Running With Scissors” is the kind of disaster that is so full and encompassing that I found myself sitting there for a few minutes after the screening wondering if maybe I had just missed the point and that it really wasn’t as bad as it seemed. A week or so later, I was waiting outside the screening room for another showing of it to end and just listening to it was enough to set my teeth on edge. Unless you are a camp afficionado who has waited far too long for a modern-day “Mommie Dearest” to come along, “Running With Scissors” is the kind of film that will inspire many viewers to begin running with scissors themselves up to the projection booth to chop the print up into guitar picks.

link directly to this review at https://www.hollywoodbitchslap.com/review.php?movie=15267&reviewer=389
originally posted: 10/27/06 00:06:18
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User Comments

1/23/10 art WEIRD MOVIE! 2 stars
12/10/07 art kind of make's you stop and think? 4 stars
2/15/07 Amy Typical suburban neurotic drama...overdone and dull. 3 stars
12/12/06 jdean62 LOVED IT ! Jill Clayburgh was amazing! Annette Was fantastic !! 5 stars
11/09/06 epstein I CAN'T BELIEVE I WASTED TIME AND $ TO SEE THIS 1 stars
11/07/06 Bob Strickland Disappointing 2 stars
11/05/06 Cutting With Feet Is SO such a word as "fullest". See: answers.com/fullest&r=67 1 stars
11/04/06 Asia McGuire Actors delivered fine, everything else was flat. 3 stars
11/04/06 wesley sniper Dude, there's no such word as "fullest" 1 stars
11/01/06 Gasper incohereent but entertining at parts, Fractured but put together well 3 stars
10/31/06 jcjs rivals 'Little Miss Sunshine' as my favorite this year..clever.great acting by all, Bening 5 stars
10/31/06 May Q. Horney Soundtrack CD not nearly as good as the Weird Al Yankovic version! 2 stars
10/30/06 Eric Johnson Freakin' loved it. 5 stars
10/26/06 Tiffany Losco Strange movie 3 stars
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  20-Oct-2006 (R)
  DVD: 06-Feb-2007



Directed by
  Ryan Murphy

Written by
  Ryan Murphy

  Annette Bening
  Brian Cox
  Joseph Fiennes
  Evan Rachel Wood
  Alec Baldwin
  Jill Clayburgh

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