Running with Scissors is a very odd movie. It
isn't the oddest film I've ever seen, I've seen too many David
Lynch and Peter Greenaway films for that, but it does stretch
your mind quite a bit. I was reminded a little of films like The
Royal Tennenbaums, Igby Goes Down and
Girl, Interrupted, since the film is all at once
an exploration of a tragically twisted family, a coming of age
and the story of how mental disease can destroy lives if not dealt
with in a way that shows mercy to its victims. However, this film
is not anywhere in the league of those films it reminds me of.
Perhaps I loved the book this film was taken from so much that
I just wanted desperately for this film to be as good as its source
and its influences. It was not, not even close.
Augusten Burroughs is not a victim. He moves though his childhood
amongst the insane and the uncaring with one burning desire: the
desire for the normalcy and boundaries that any child has a right
to expect. His plight is both deeply tragic and utterly hysterical.
In both the book and in Ryan Murphy's film, we are able to see
the absurd and the humorous in his situation, as well as appreciate
that he was barely able to escape from his wretched childhood
with his life and sanity intact. The abstract nature of the film,
which feels like nothing more than a mosaic of incidents thrown
together, attempts valiantly to convey the mood and soul of what
his past must have been like. After all, Burroughs can never really
tell us truthfully what happened to him; all he can do is try
to get across is how it made him feel.
In a nutshell, the film is about how Augusten Burroughs witnesses
the violent breakdown of his parents marriage (his father was
an abusive alcoholic, and his mother can best be described as
a narcissistic, manic depressive poet with delusions of grandeur)
and goes to live with his mother's terrible psychiatrist, Dr Finch,
and his completely messed up family. In an attempt to find herself
Augusten's mother Deidre (Annette Bening in fine form) has affairs
with several women, who Augusten disapproves of more as a matter
of taste than sexual preference. He too is gay and quickly finds
himself in a relationship with Dr Finch's 35-year-old, schizophrenic
son, Neil (played by an almost unrecognisable Joseph Fiennes).
Dr Finch's two daughters, Hope and Natalie (Gwyneth Paltrow and
the always wonderful Evan Rachel Wood) also live with them in
the house, along with Dr Finch's wife Agnes. All three women have
profound, yet vastly different, effects on Augusten's life. The
performances of these three actresses are nothing short of spectacular,
but they are undermined time and time again by the director's
choices as he goes for quick, shock humour over any kind of deep,
rich analysis of these people and why they have evolved the way
they have. The mosaic that begins as interesting and quirky cracks
quickly and sinks towards the conclusion into retro, pastiche
I found myself laughing at the characters - and not in a good
way - when I should have been crying for them. This tale should
be precautionary, an epic warning against chronic, categorical
child abuse. I didn't feel that. What I felt was disjointed, somewhere
between pity and detachment. I think I expected something more
meaningful. I still find it difficult to reconcile all these fabulous
performances with a film that just doesn't work. Perhaps it is
in the direction, perhaps in the editing, the pacing of the film.
The first twenty minutes seemed so promising, then it dissolved
into unstructured hysteria. I can't pinpoint exactly where it
goes wrong. Sure, it was fascinating at times, but it was too
self-indulgent to be powerful.
The black comedy that the director was going for feels less like
a finely-honed scissor cut and more like being hit over the head
with a blunt instrument repeatedly for two hours. But it wasn't
all bad. Moments of true potential shone through amongst the madness.
Perhaps my favourite scene in the film, and the one in which Burroughs'
skill for dramatic metaphor truly shines, is the one in which
Augusten and Natalie decide that the ceiling in the kitchen is
too low, and that they must, in order to breathe and let out their
anger, punch a quite literal hole through the ceiling. They sit
at the kitchen table afterwards, covered in plaster, looking more
free than they have for the entire film. When Dr Finch walks in
and surveys the damage he oddly, and quite rightly, decides that
the new hole in the ceiling gives the kitchen a sense of humour.
The direction of Running with Scissors is too
erratic to contain the pure madness of the script and the actors.
It's a project gone out of control, with flashes of bright light
that hold the mess together. Perhaps a more experienced director
would have been better able to control his story? Perhaps the
inmates took over the asylum? Whatever the cause the result is
uneven, trivial, ineffective, and almost oppressively disappointing.
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