Running with Scissors Review
By Joe Lozito
"What would we be without our difficult childhoods", sighs Dr. Marion Finch in one of his few thoughtful moments. Dr Finch (the always enjoyable Brian Cox), is one of the many eccentrically quirky characters in Ryan Murphy's delightful adaptation of Augusten Burroughs' popular memoir. And truly Mr. Burroughs was both blessed and cursed if any of "Running with Scissors" is to be believed. While he came out with some great material, his was truly a childhood to be pitied. After his parents divorce - his father was an alcoholic, his mother a delusional poet - young Augusten is forced to live with his mother's psychiatrist and his wacky, cobbled together family. What happens from there I'll leave to the film.
"Without boundaries," Augusten declares, "life is just a series of surprises." That also more or less sums up "Running", which plays as a series of darkly humorous events tied together by young Augusten's journal confessions. The film suffers from two lessons learned time and again by Wes Anderson: 1) it's difficult to sustain a film on quirks alone; and 2) when your characters are this cynical and self-deprecating, it's hard to generate any real emotion for them.
Thankfully - while it never coalesces into the dysfunctional perfection of "Little Miss Sunshine"
, for example, or Mr. Anderson's own "Rushmore"
- "Running" has enough witty moments to recommend it. Plus, the cast is uniformly brilliant. Before we get to Annette Bening, who seems to be experiencing something of a career renaissance, let's talk about Alec Baldwin, also coming into his own by embracing his middle-aged paunchiness. He was a stand-out in "The Departed"
and he's the best thing in the new TV series "30 Rock". Here Mr. Baldwin shows untapped depths as a desperately frustrated father at the end of his tether.
But let's get back to Ms. Bening, who turns in a performance that is at once a riff on and reinvention of her Oscar-nominated role in "American Beauty"
. Using phrases like "Get that rage on the page, women!" to her poetry class, her Deirdre Burroughs is an epically frustrated poet and maternal hellion drowning in a sea of self-pity and valium. It's a tribute to Ms. Bening that she manages to make Deirdre sympathetic even as she performs dreadful acts of neglect.
Ryan Murphy, one of the creators of TV's equally satirical "Nip/Tuck", is a perfect fit to adapt Mr. Burroughs' celebrated memoir, but I would have thought the writer-director - freed from the puritanical boundaries of television - would have taken it further. The late 70s sets and costumes are pitch-perfect, but he treads ever so lightly over the sexuality - both homo- and hetero- - which is inherent to the story.
Young Joseph Cross is a worthy avatar for the author, combining a sweet innocence with a knowing precociousness. Jill Clayburgh is quietly memorable as Dr. Finch beleaguered wife, but Evan Rachel Wood ("Thirteen"
) should have been more effective in the role of Finch's young daughter. And the stars of "Shakespeare in Love"
, Gwyneth Paltrow and Joseph Fiennes, are together again - though neither actor has much screen time or does much with it.
At any given time any one of these borderline lunatics could be the one running or holding the scissors or both. They all seem on the verge of losing what little grasp on reality they have left - all except young Augusten, who merely wants some kind of refuge in this storm. It's hard to believe a 15 year-old could have survived this maelstrom even half as well as the writer apparently did but, hey, it's a memoir…it has to be true.