October 30, 2006

Running with Scissors

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When I first heard that Running with Scissors was being made into a movie, I excitedly went and told my friend: “Guess what? Running with Scissors is being made into a movie!”

“What are you talking about?” she said.

“It’s a book by David Sedaris and you like David Sedaris,” I reminded her.

“No it’s not. I have no idea what it is.”


It turns out that the movie Running with Scissors, adapted and directed by Ryan Murphy, is in fact based on the memoirs of Augusten Burroughs, who is played by Joseph Cross during his teen years.

So then, what is Running with Scissors, if it’s not about David Sedaris? Exceedingly odd and unsettling is what it is. The movie is primarily focused on Augusten’s teenage years, during the 1970s, after his parents split up and when his mother becomes increasingly mentally ill. His mother, Deirdre (Annette Bening), is an aspiring poet, although these aspirations and dreams are far in excess of what has actually transpired — the career she has woven for herself in her head is almost entirely removed from reality.

As the story progresses, Augusten’s mother becomes increasingly reliant on her psychiatrist, whose methods and lifestyle are unorthodox, to say the least, and who is the impetus for Augusten’s parents’ separation. The psychiatrist, Dr. Marion Finch (Brian Cox), looks like Freud and is an unbalanced person. A couple of his phrases should convince you of his profound weirdness, for instance: “My turd is a direct communication from the Holy Father.” Or this one, apropos of nothing: “I’d like some slices of bologna with a side of horseradish.” He also has a room adjacent to his office devoted entirely to self-pleasure, with portraits of the Queen and Golda Meir hanging on the wall. This is one peculiar shrink.

Eventually, on Dr. Finch’s recommendation, Augusten ends up living with the Finches, to leave his mother to deal with her problems without him. The Finch residence, no less than Dr. Finch himself, is entirely surreal (and would be slightly unbelievable had this not been a memoir). Their home resembles, on the exterior, a hot pink antebellum crack house. Inside, it is total chaos.

The house is run, if that is the proper word, by Finch’s wife, Agnes (Jill Clayburgh), who has nearly given up playing the role of matriarch due to the total shambles of the world in which she lives (although she might be the only true mensch in the film). The house is also inhabited by Finch’s two daughters, rebel Goth Natalie (Evan Rachel Wood), who befriends Augusten, and Victorian psycho Hope (Gwyneth Paltrow), who kills her cat. Augusten, who has begun making a career of playing hooky, is not helped by this less-than-nurturing environment. The bulk of the film deals with Augusten and his mother, and their twin attempts to deal with their own lives.

Ostensibly, Running with Scissors is a comedy. And all this madcap bizarreness could certainly be turned into a witty, wharped film. Unfortunately, it is not. While it is darkly humorous at times, too often it is just plain weird and disturbing. The people in this movie go beyond simply dysfunctional. Dysfunction is usually watchable and entertaining, since you can often equate portions of the characters to people in your own family. But here, the adjective “dysfunctional” doesn’t even come close to describing the Finches. Perhaps “unhinged” or “tragic” would be more fitting. In any case, Running with Scissors is bizarre, upsetting and sometimes even a little too painful to watch. And knowing that it is all based on real people and real occurrences makes the experience of watching the film that much more uncomfortable.

Nonetheless, I think the movie had potential. Although I didn’t enjoy it, I imagine many will, and perhaps I am again alone in my dislike for a film hugely popular with others (as with Pulp Fiction). I wonder what David Sedaris would have thought.