Wandering with Scissors or Lost in Translation might have been better titles for writer-director Ryan Murphy’s big screen adaptation of Augusten Burroughs’s popular memoir, Running with Scissors. Films based on popular novels can range from dead-on (Mystic River, The Silence of the Lambs), to so-so (The Firm), to downright awful (Bonfire of the Vanities). Running with Scissors falls somewhere between the latter two categories: it’s not an atrocity, just a thorough disappointment.
It’s possible the material itself doesn’t lend itself to film. Burroughs is a funny writer, and the book details his horror-filled childhood (a mentally unstable mother who lets her equally unstable shrink adopt him) with irony and humor. However, the book is episodic and the film falls into the same trap (in many ways, his second novel, Dry, which chronicles Burroughs’s battle with alcohol, would be more easily adaptable). What was so fresh about Running with Scissors as a book seems stale and odd on film.
A large part of the fault lies at Murphy’s feet. To start with, the film really isn’t Augusten’s story. Joseph Cross is very appealing as the young writer, but in Murphy’s hands, he’s an observer to his own life. There are a few moments of perfunctory narration, none of which have the comic bite of Burroughs’s book. Secondly, Murphy cannot find or maintain a consistent tone. Initially, he wants us to laugh at Augusten’s whacked-out mom Deirdre (Annette Bening) with condescension; later, when he tries to play her plight for sympathy, it doesn’t work as well as it should. A keener adaptation would’ve let the irony come from Augusten, not from the performances.
As good a cast as Murphy has assembled here, there is an element of “cute” in some of their acting. Bening’s performance in particular smacks of self-awareness and frequently threatens to head into Mommie Dearest territory. Cox, who’s a wonderful character actor (see L.I.E. or Manhunter) is oddly aloof as the doctor and overly self-satisfied about the comic nature of his character. Evan Rachel Wood is well cast as the psychiatrist’s rebel daughter, but Murphy forces her to enact T.V. movie theatrics that nobody could pull off. The best players, ironically, have some of the smaller parts. Jill Clayburgh and Alec Baldwin (as the psychiatrist’s long-suffering wife and Burroughs’s boozy, absentee father, respectively) underplay their roles to lovely effect. Gwyneth Paltrow is hoot in her tiny role as the psychiatrist’s favorite daughter. Unfortunately, these characters are crowded by a parade of supporting characters (including Kristen Chenoweth, Gabrielle Union, and a blink-and-you’ll-miss-him Patrick Wilson), none of whom add anything to the story.
Perhaps the oddest member of this ensemble is Joseph Fiennes as Burroughs’s mentally unstable first lover, Neil. Fiennes, who was so charming in Shakespeare in Love, is decked out here like Andy Kaufman, with a personality to match. Affecting a nasal, not-totally-convincing American accent, Fiennes yells, screams and all but froths at the mouth—but not at Augusten. A crucial part of the book was Burroughs’s troubled relationship with the 35 year-old Neil. On one hand, Murphy and Fiennes make Neil so weird you can’t imagine Augusten being attracted to him. On the other hand, Neil is just a puppy dog around Augusten, awkward instead of sexually violent.
The errors of Neil’s characterization are in many ways emblematic of Murphy’s failure as a whole. He soft-pedals a lot of the truly shocking material in Burroughs’s book, and when he leaves something in, he can’t seem to stop nudging us in the ribs to see if we get the “joke.” The film has moments where its potential can been seen and his cast couldn’t be better (save for Bening, who I think was a poor choice). Ultimately, Running with Scissors never takes off because the film has a bigger identity crisis than the main character.
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