|Running with Scissors (2006)
Starring: Annette Bening, Gwyneth Paltrow, Jill Clayburgh, Brian Cox, Joseph Fiennes, Evan Rachel Wood, Alec Baldwin, Vanessa Redgrave, Joseph Cross
Director: Ryan Murphy
“Running with Scissors,” the best-selling memoir by Augusten Burroughs, was undoubtedly a property whose film rights multiple studios sought to acquire. Unfortunately, the eventual winner of those rights, Brad Pitt’s Plan B Productions, may end up suffering from buyer’s remorse.
The central problem with translating a book like “Running with Scissors” to film is that many of the very scenes that make the story so gripping on paper will be alienating onscreen unless they are toned down – but to tone them down is to strip the tiger of his claws. What’s left behind may still have teeth, but it’s not the same animal.
Both the film and the book tell the true coming-of-age story of Augusten Burroughs (Joseph Cross), a gay teen essentially abandoned by his bipolar mother Deirdre (Annette Bening) and sent to live with her eccentric psychiatrist (Brian Cox) and his equally eccentric family, the Finches. For ease of storytelling, certain characters in the book have been eliminated or combined in the film; for example, the book’s four Finch daughters have been condensed into two: the straitlaced Hope (Gwyneth Paltrow) and the troublemaking Natalie (Evan Rachel Wood, who should probably start pestering her agent for some brainy wallflower roles before she is indelibly typecast as “the girl of loose morals”). That alteration was a wise move, for there is more than enough chaos in the Finch household without introducing two additional characters into the fray.
What’s less wise is how the central “romantic” relationship between Burroughs and his much older lover, Neil Bookman (Joseph Fiennes) is portrayed. The movie seems to suggest that 35-year-old Bookman’s sexual pursuit of the 13-year-old Burroughs might be a little odd, but that given Augusten’s level of maturity and Neil’s regressive behavior, the two essentially “meet in the middle” and have a somewhat tumultuous but otherwise fairly normal, loving relationship. The book, on the other hand, lays Bookman out for what he is: a dangerously unstable pederast – not exactly your garden variety romantic lead. While it’s understandable that the filmmakers would want to downplay the unsavory aspects of Augusten’s relationship with Burroughs, the net result is to shove an extremely unsettling issue under the covers in hopes that no one will notice. Since the issue is the size of a small elephant, however, that hope seems ill-advised.
Equally ill-advised are the significant logic and continuity gaps that plague the picture. In one scene, Annette Bening’s Deirdre appears at the Finch house for a visit with the doctor. She is nearly comatose (presumably from the effects of the Valium the good doctor has prescribed)…yet has somehow still managed to retain enough clarity to drive herself to the Finch home without error. Later, Deirdre makes a distraught phone call to the lover who has just abandoned her (Augusten’s discovery of whom was yet another shocking scene watered down for the movie), while a disturbing trail of red down the side of the bathtub suggests that she has just slit her wrists…yet in the next scene, she bears no scars, and no mention is made of any attempt on her life.
To be fair, there are some strong performances in the movie. Joseph Cross’s heartbreak at his mother’s abandonment of him is palpable, and Alec Baldwin does a superb job as Norman Burroughs, the alcoholic husband and father who can’t hope to understand either his wife or his son. Brian Cox is reliably convincing as the psychiatrist crazier than any of his patients, and Jill Clayburgh, playing the mousy matriarch of the Finch clan, provides the movie’s rare glimpses of heart.
As for Augusten’s mother, there has been talk that thrice-nominated Annette Bening will finally win her Academy Award with this performance. That talk is premature. Bening’s work as the deeply self-absorbed and unbalanced Deirdre is fine, if uneven (though that is presumably meant to be an indication of her ever-changing mood swings and medication levels), but it is not Oscar-worthy – despite the previous statuettes that have gone to actors playing mentally ill characters. Oscar may love crazy (just ask Jack Nicholson), but he specifically loves redemptive crazy…and there is very little worth redeeming in either Bening’s performance or the rest of the film.
In the end, what derails “Running with Scissors” is not the acting; it is that the movie offers so little to like. The characters may be interesting and funny at times, but that doesn’t make you root for them. Do you really want a thirteen-year-old boy to live happily ever after with the man who essentially raped him? Would you want anything to do with a family who stands idly by while their elder daughter starves her cat to death for no reason?
If your answer to these questions is no, you’re not alone. Whereas Burroughs’ original memoir opens a window to a world that is harrowing and disturbing, yet viscerally powerful in its honesty; the film version is merely deeply unpleasant. Ironically, had the producers not been so quick to water down the book’s more “objectionable” moments, they would likely have delivered a more compelling movie.
Three behind-the-scenes featurettes make up the bulk of the bonus material on the single-disc release of “Running with Scissors.” “A Personal Memoir by Augusten Burroughs” discusses how the author wrote the book, why he selected Ryan Murphy to adapt, and how he worked with the cast; “Inside Outsiders” features cast interviews on how the created their respective characters; and “Creating the Cuckoo’s Nest” examines the production of the crazy Finch home.