Dull Running with Scissors needs sharpening

by Beacon Staff • October 25, 2006

Dysfunctional casts of characters are not rare in contemporary cinema. Unfortunately, many recent releases have neither improved upon the paradigm nor been subversive enough to experiment with the already exhausted conventions. Running with Scissors continues this streak of weak poseurs.

As an eccentric ensemble piece, it is missing the absurdist comedy of I Heart Huckabees and the peculiar pathos of The Royal Tenenbaums. This dull result is even more depressing when considering how fey and colorful Augusten Burroughs memoirs, from which the film is based, are.

Ultimately, the filmmakers accomplish one ostensibly infeasible task: they render Burroughs' life unremarkable.

The film opens with a voiceover identifying itself, "My name is Augusten Burroughs." A teenage Burroughs (Joseph Cross) concludes this brief introduction by noting, "I guess it doesn't really matter where I begin because no one is going to believe me, anyway." It is not the strange events that occur, however, that makes this production unbelievable; it's the way the filmmakers have taken candid accounts and neatly packaged them for easy digestion that strains this toothless film's plausibility.

Running with Scissors revolves around a sensitive, aptly angst-ridden teenage Burroughs. He can thank his mother, Deirdre (Annette Bening, taking full advantage of her character's psychosis), for such an unconventional, tumultuous childhood.

Deirdre, a vastly unstable and acerbic narcissist with delusions of grandeur, divorces her husband and selfishly decides that her quirky psychiatrist, Dr. Finch (Brian Cox, who is usually fantastic but is merely serviceable here), should adopt Augusten so she can concentrate on her emotions and writing. Dr. Finch has two odd daughters (Evan Rachel Wood and Gwyneth Paltrow, trying hard to give dimension to their one-note characters and failing) and an adopted, perilous thirtysomething son (Joseph Fiennes). Thus begins Augusten's wayward trip through life and his struggle to cope with uncontrollable events.

The director of Running with Scissors, Ryan Murphy, has previously worked in television-he is credited as creator of the provocative slice-and-dice FX series "Nip/Tuck" and the teen cult (yet hardly classic) show "Popular." Perhaps that's why, after moving to a new medium, the film is so jarringly episodic and lacking in cohesion. It lumps along from one scene to the next, pointing out another bizarre, yet candy-coated, vignette from Augusten's memoirs.

Augusten whines from scene to scene, consistently complaining about living an abnormal existence, yet the film is not bold enough to justify his complaints. Even the spontaneous relationship between Augusten and a 32-year-old male-the aforementioned adopted son of Dr. Finch-does not seem self-destructive and there are hardly any visibly negative affects. By the end, it's downright tiresome. At least the devoted cast attempts to bring the film to a higher level.

Augusten isn't annoying, though-he is, oddly, not given enough material to be.

Despite being the centerpiece, he's simply drab. It's difficult to blame Cross when the film's script obviously has a bias towards Bening's scene-stealing histrionics.

The stabs at whimsical humor mostly fall flat, and an attempt to inject heart into the production through three scenes with a subtext-exposing Mrs. Finch (Jill Clayburgh), are awkwardly placed. These scenes augment the film's unevenness and tonal confusion. Therefore, it's neither an effective idiosyncratic comedy nor a touching reflection on a teenage life and apprehension towards the future.

In an interview with The Beacon, Cross claimed that he identified with Augusten's "loneliness amidst a chaotic atmosphere," and the film does try to convey a theme of oppression, yet ultimately results in a scene of baffling optimism.

The narrative rolls out over the '70s, and Murphy tries his best to capture this time period. His best, which consists of spending a large percentage of film's budget on song rights, is not enough.

Murphy doesn't have the flair for '70s kitsch; he mistakes a loaded soundtrack (including Elton John and Crosby, Stills Nash) for earned retro status.

There's a catchphrase that Deirdre uses in her writing workshop: "get the rage on the page." A similarly rhyming phrase was probably uttered during a meeting of producers: "make it lean and put it on screen."

The title is very appropriate, since scissors were, apparently, heavily involved in the production. The adapters used scissors to snip out the bizarre nature of life, making every scene seem more like forced plot advancement than a capricious twist in Augusten's journey. Somewhere along the line, someone tripped while running with scissors and castrated the production. Despite a mostly adept cast-including a diva-licious performance by Annette Bening-Running with Scissors has less balls than a Ken doll.