The Good: My gosh, it finally ends!, Moments of acting
The Bad: Much of the acting, The characters, Lack of plot, Plodding pace, Tone, Message, DVD extras
The Basics: In an overrated and terrible movie, Augusten Burroughs relates his traumatic childhood spent in the company of a crazy adopted family.
Augusten Burroughs is a boy growing up in the 1970s with a poet mother who desperately dreams of stardom and a father who is an alcoholic. Augusten's mother, Deirdre, soon divorces Norman at the recommendation of her psychiatrist, Dr. Finch. Finch encourages Deirdre's selfish behavior and Deirdre soon abandons Augusten to Dr. Finch and his family while she goes off to explore poetry and lesbianism.
Augusten, then, finds himself trapped within the hell that is Dr. Finch's household. Surrounded by children who poop behind the Christmas tree (which has been up for years), a mother-figure who eats dog food, a disco-dancing girl and a religious zealot, Augusten soon falls in with a schizophrenic older man who might just kill them all. Augusten works to survive by writing in a journal, becoming truant from school, and limiting his exposure to the craziness of his new family.
Augusten Burroughs, sadly, is not a fictional construct. The lone bonus feature I could bare to sit through (there were three featurettes and a bunch of previews on the DVD release of this film) introduced the author Augusten Burroughs who sits in denial telling the viewer how he survived and overcame his crappy childhood, which Running With Scissors is a memoir of. I write "sits in denial" because almost thirty years after the events that shaped his life from his childhood, he is still working through it by creating a movie. Regardless of what Burroughs declares in his on-screen endorsement of the film, this is not a celebration of a universal struggle that is immortalized on film.
Running With Scissors fails utterly because it is so insular, specific, and disturbing as to rob it of any real entertainment value. Some years ago, I wrote one of my first reviews on the book Lilliane: Resurrection Of The Daughter (reviewed here!) where I postulated that what made the book so pointless and difficult to read was that it captured reality too well. In the case of Running With Scissors, Burroughs and screenwriter-director Ryan Murphy create something that may accurately recreate the reality of Augusten's youth but is so outside the normal, interesting or entertaining as to be painful to watch.
As this film plodded on - the pacing is disastrously slow - scene after scene was agonizing to watch. After a slow start wherein Norman and Deirdre break up, partially at the behest of the quack Dr. Finch who insists he must observe the couple for five hours a day in order to save their marriage, Augusten and the viewer become condemned to a series of slow deliveries that agonizingly draw out a pointless experience that results in nothing so satisfying as a laugh.
Whatever niche Running With Scissors is trying to fit into, it fails. It's not funny, though moments of the film have the elements to be horrifying in a way humor can be when one steps away from the joke and thinks about what has actually happened or been said. It's not comedic, it's not so much dramatic as it is dull. That is to say that great character drama has a tension to it that absent from Running With Scissors. It does not take long before the viewer simply does not care about Augusten or his fate.
The reason is simple; Augusten is not a compelling character. All due respect to the real Augusten Burroughs (if this is a strict memoir, wow, t.f.b.), Augusten Burroughs from Running With Scissors is dull, uninspired and uninspiring. He is a youth who never takes control of his own destiny. Instead, he takes all the sh*t that is flung at him and he accepts it as the way it is. It's ironic because my mentor and I were debating social mobility this past weekend and after seeing Running With Scissors, I'm almost forced to concede the point that people trap themselves far too often within their own hells. In this context, Augusten is never so motivated by all of the factors that torment him to actually make the changes he would like, that he needs. The result, unsurprisingly, is that (author in reality) Augusten Burroughs is still processing his crappy childhood twenty years later. Condemning the viewer to share his crappy childhood is not entertaining and it is not revealing of the human condition.
Similarly, Deirdre is wholly unsympathetic and unempathetic. She is played by Annette Bening with little differentiation between Deirdre and her more compelling character from American Beauty (reviewed here!). Bening is a quieter form of crazy in Running With Scissors, but much of the performance feels the same or similar.
At this point, I believe it is relevant to compare Running With Scissors with a film that has a similar sensibility to it, but was vastly better. If Running With Scissors is at the bottom of the scale of the dysfunctional family drama, the foil movie is The Royal Tenenbaums (reviewed here!). The Royal Tenenbaums tells the story of the three children of Royal Tenenbaum as their adult lives collapse and his estranged wife looks to remarry. Much of the movie, like Running With Scissors happens in the confines of one house and neighborhood but what The Royal Tenenbaums does well is create characters that are empathetic. They are motivated by their pasts and their quirks embody their reactions to their stimuli. The assemblage of Running With Scissors is portrayed as crazy and esoteric for the sake of weird and shocking. So, for example, Gwyneth Paltrow plays Hope Finch in Running With Scissors, a religious zealot whose origins and motivations are never explained. She is crazy for the sake of crazy. Ironically, Paltrow also appears in The Royal Tenenbaums and even with years since I last saw it, I can easily recall that her character in that film was depressed and dysfunctional because her adopted father treated her different from his biological children, her plays had fizzled commercially and her marriage to a listless psychoanalyst had encouraged her to renew her addictions. There is nothing so deep from any of the principles of Running With Scissors.
As I watched this film last night, I was considering that this is Gay Pride Month and films like Running With Scissors were among the assemblage of flicks that just didn't help the cause. Deirdre, the character not whatever real poet exists outside the film, is a weak-willed doped up mother whose irresponsibility, drug use and ability to be influenced by Dr. Finch lead her to a witless exploration of lesbianism that is almost as canned as Augusten's own homosexuality. Augusten, getting a leap on his sexuality by having sex with his older brother-figure, Neil Bookman, a schizophrenic also adopted by Dr. Finch, is an entirely uninspiring role model for homosexuals of any age.
Granted, gays and lesbians - like ANY population - come in a wide array of heights, weights, skin colors, hair colors, and states of health (physical and mental). I recall going to a LGB community meeting when in high school and being mildly surprised to see a blind person there. Yes, it opened my eyes - pun intended - to the whole idea that the LGB community truly was like any other when I saw a blind lesbian. As a matter of gay pride, Running With Scissors is just abysmal and it opens the community up to a plethora of the worst, most stereotypical, arguments that most of us would like to see buried.
So, for example, throughout the movie, there is a strong incestuous relationship between Augusten and his mother, Deirdre. He brushes her hair, fawns over her as she practices poetry reading and emulates her. The film goes so far as to suggest that Augusten knows his mother so intimately as to effectively and realistically role play her when playing doctor with Natalie. As well, the film opens itself up to the tired comparisons of gays as pedophiles when Neil has sexual contact with Augusten when Augusten is fifteen (or less).
As well, all of the gay or lesbian characters in Running With Scissors are either crazy (Neil is schizophrenic), weak-willed (Deirdre's neighbor and lesbian practice toy Fern), opportunistic (Dorothy), idiotic (Augusten's lack of escape initiative can only be traced to innate stupidity) and/or drug addicted (Deirdre is both mentally ill and drug-addicted). As far as seeing characters from the community, Running With Scissors is terrible and frightening to any young people. As well, it showcases only the worst about these people. None of them have anything remotely redeemable about them. The other characters might be crazy, but most are defined by the idea that they are crazy by what they eat (dog food and a long-dead cat, in case you're curious). The most seriously ill characters in this film also happen to be the ones who are gay.
Finally, the problem is exacerbated by the lack of on-screen chemistry between Joseph Cross (Augusten) and Joseph Fiennes (Neil). Cross has more on-screen chemistry with costar Evan Rachel Wood who is relegated to a sisterly role as Natalie. But even more damning than the connection between Wood and Cross is the character interactions between the two. When Augusten becomes most desperate, he calls on Natalie to help him. Somewhere, there's a young hick saying "He's only gay because he's crazy." Sigh.
My point in all this is that Augusten Burroughs and Ryan Murphy create or recreate a story of a boy's witless adventures in growing up where he is pushed around by family members into a situation where he is simply stuck. It's made worse by the negative messages and themes which are so backwards and terrible that if they were happening to any other minorities other than gays and lesbians and the mentally ill, the film would have never been made (make a movie with a black mother eating dog food or a Japanese girl cooking her dead cat for joy and see how quickly the Anti-Defamation groups leap up!). I would say the writers and director ought to feel ashamed, but if I learned anything from Running With Scissors it was that Augusten Burroughs has already been in situations that were shaming enough; it is regrettable that he chose to share his insular and damaged experiences rather than seeking to truly survive them. Running With Scissors simply immortalizes them and it is not worth your time or attention.
For other works with Evan Rachel Wood, check out my takes on:
The Ides Of March
True Blood - Season Three
True Blood - Season Two
Across The Universe
Once And Again - Season Two
Once And Again - Season One
For other film reviews, be sure to check out my Movie Review Index Page for an organized listing!
© 2012, 2007 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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