Running With Scissors
2006Director: Ryan Murphy
Cast: Annette Bening, Brian Cox, Joseph Cross
his movie made me ask myself a question: do I care about other people? Probably, but only if they are interesting. Is that unfair? Yes. Nonetheless, it’s true. In a medium that demands either great art or high entertainment, you cannot pull off the misery narrative unless your central character is either exceptionally well drawn (as in Napoleon Dynamite), or philosophically enthralling (as in The Passion of the Christ or Ongegin). The bildungsroman of Augusten Burroughs is neither intricately sketched nor wildly interesting.
Abandoned by his alcoholic father and insane mother, the boy comes under the protection of his egomaniacal therapist, Dr. Finch. During his time with his new family, Augusten discovers his homosexuality (and little else) before inexplicably leaving for New York. A series of oddball set pieces, Burroughs’ narrative is one of rapid dissolution. The characters are a bunch of broadly drawn eccentrics on a downward spiral, ticking the plot along a desperately quirky series of events. Director Ryan Murphy makes his feature debut here, having moved on from TV’s “Nip/Tuck,” but he hasn’t moved far. Still peppered with self-obsessive valium-poppers on a mission to define themselves, Murphy’s America is in physical and mental breakdown. It’s difficult for the audience to care.
The humor of the film is part of the problem. Unlike the ostensibly similar The Royal Tenenbaums or the wonderfully dry The Squid and the Whale, this movie doesn’t balance drama and comedy well. The discordant scenes lock each other out, resulting in a hit and miss montage of well staged but inane moments. Whatever it takes to instil a film with passion and empathy simply isn’t there. Perhaps it’s because such quirky characters retain an element of ‘cool’ that precludes identification. On the surface, Midnight Cowboy has much in common with Running With Scissors: a boy out of his depth, desperate for recognition. However, Joe Buck is a winning character because he’s like an open wound, vulnerable. Augusten, as played by Joseph Cross, is cold and defensive—an unlikable central force.
The supporting characters offer precious little relief, particularly Hope, an almost vacant space fleetingly occupied by Gwyneth Paltrow. Way too old for the part, the actress reverts to the morbid adolescence of Margot Tenenbaum. Her slight and unnecessary presence in the film is irritating. There is some talent in the film, but it struggles against the odds, which is always a sad sight. Joseph Fiennes fares better as Neil, a cry-baby psychotic played with endearing desperation and vulnerability. As Augusten’s mother, Annette Bening is predictably brilliant in middle-aged, middle-of-the-road breakdown. Brian Cox deserves especial mention, utterly superb as Dr. Finch. The absurdist psychobabble that flows from his mouth is earnest and totally hilarious. In one scene, he calls the family to crowd around the toilet, celebrating the miracle of his recently expelled turd, which reaches from the bowl towards heaven.
It’s widely accepted that Burroughs fabricated much of his outrageous memoir. If only Murphy were courageous enough to incorporate this friction between truth and fantasy into his own work. In Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, George Clooney left his audience in the realm of uncertainty, toying with storytelling and credibility. It’s a pity that Running With Scissors never thought to tease out this element of Burroughs’ character. The irony might have helped to create the intimacy that the story so obviously lacks.
Although there’s only so much that can be done for a film that’s not supported by an effective script, the unnecessarily flowery direction doesn’t help matters. Just as in This Boy’s Life—another tale of a misfit on the rocky road to adulthood—we are harassed by the director’s record collection on the soundtrack. It’s a common and infuriating problem. I don’t need to be bombarded by the pop music of the time to believe that the film is set in 1972. Besides, these musical interludes feel derivative and break the kind of naturalism that’s necessary to engage with the lead character.
Running With Scissors isn’t a total loss. Early in the film, Augusten watches his mother in the dark, whispering: “I like watching her sleep, she looks like she’s dead.” That’s a nice scene and a wonderful line, but it’s stranded within a story that cannot sustain our attention. Ryan Murphy allows Running With Scissors to be too flippant too often. The movie gets away from him and, thus, gets nowhere near us.
Running With Scissors is now available on DVD.