In a game effort to deflect the immediate suspicions of most viewers likely to be mistrustful of its all-too-convenient cast of wildly entertaining eccentrics, the young boy narrating Running with Scissors acknowledges, somewhat ruefully, early on that “nobody’s going to believe me anyway.” It’s a smart maneuver, given what follows in this overly energetic adaptation of Augusten Burroughs’ bestselling 2002 memoir about growing up in the 1970s with a mentally damaged mother who sent him off to be raised by her psychiatrist in his house of David Lynch
-ian strangeness. As it stands, Running with Scissors is best taken as a literary memoir and not judged on its complete veracity but whether it works as a story of flawed people in an environment that seems to cater to all their worst impulses. It almost does.
The film opens in 1972, showing a young Augusten as an audience of one for his mother Deirdre’s in-home poetry reading, microphone and all. The bilious, self-aggrandizing manner with which Deirdre (Annette Bening
) gives her reading tells you pretty much all you need to know about the opinion she holds as to her place in the world and any who may disagree. Any remaining questions about her fitfulness as a mother are answered when the film jumps to its primary setting in the late '70s, where Deirdre has become a whirling dervish of arrogant fury and spite. Her obsessive belief that she is an important poet being kept from her rightful place at the center of the literary firmament drives away first Augusten’s father (Alec Baldwin
, lightly soused) and then Augusten, whom she decides would be better off living with her exceedingly unorthodox psychiatrist, Dr. Finch (Brian Cox
). A devout and at least partially mad Freudian of the most unrecondite sort, Finch keeps a special room next to his doctor’s office which he calls The Masturbatorium and divines the future from the shape of his bowel movements. Seemingly he's not much of a father figure. Article continues below
Once it deposits the relatively colorless Augusten (Joseph Cross
) in the house, the film throws an abundance of vivid characters at us, from Finch’s pet-food-eating wife Agnes (Jill Clayburgh
) to his daughters -- best described as the slutty one (Evan Rachel Wood
) and the religious one (Gwyneth Paltrow
) -- and the definitely insane son (Joseph Fiennes
, uncomfortably bad) who starts an affair with the far-too-young Augusten. But the film is unable to make them much more than cartoon characters in Finch’s filthy, falling-down house of oddities where dead cats receive full burials and pharmaceuticals are handed out like Pez.
Writer/director Ryan Murphy
(Nip/Tuck) knows that the material in his hands has the potential for humor, that queasy kind of if-you-don’t-laugh-you’ll-cry sort of funny which Burroughs uses as a coping device in his writing. What works in the book, however, comes off on film as shallow and mocking; we’re laughing at these damaged people. Murphy scores too many scenes with well-worn and not terribly appropriate ‘70s pop chestnuts, playing it all for the easy punchline, making the film too often a shallow exercise in retro camp.
There are, nevertheless, two reasons to see Running with Scissors, and they are Bening and Cox. Bening could well be accused of shamelessly going for the Oscar with her full-throttle and stage-clearing performance, but given the fearsomely focused pathos that results, it’s hard to complain. Cox is as always the consummate professional who underplays as everyone else overplays, finding the sly humor and magisterial authority at the heart of his unapologetically crude patriarch. Although playing self-absorbed narcissists of the worst kind, given the half-formed caricatures flitting around them, Bening and Cox make their characters by far the film’s most endearing; not a good sign for everyone else involved.