It is at this time that I feel like borrowing and reworking a phrase coined by the one and only Roger Ebert: “I didn’t feel like a viewer during Running with Scissors. I felt like an eyewitness at a disaster.” Here is a film so loathsome, so pointless, and so painful to watch that I could only wince as it bounced from scene to scene (or more accurately, skit to skit). A disaster, indeed.
Running with Scissors is the story of Augusten Burroughs’ (Cross) upbringing in what has to be the strangest environment any human being has ever encountered. As the film begins, Augusten’s mother, Deirdre (Bening), is reading him poetry and making excuses for him to miss school. Her goal in life: to be a featured poet in The New Yorker. Augusten’s father, Norman (Baldwin), is a hopeless alcoholic desperately trying to figure out the woman he has married. Norman and Deirdre visit Dr. Finch (Cox) for marriage counseling. Remarkably, Finch eventually becomes the right hand man of the Burroughs family, and Augusten winds up spending his early adolescence as a member of the Finch clan.
And what a clan they are. Agnes (Jill Clayburgh) is the bizarre, yet thoughtful, matriarch. Natalie (Wood) is the wild child daughter, Hope (Gwyneth Paltrow) is the Bible-banging daughter, and Neil Bookman (Fiennes) is the eccentric would-be son. To say this family is dysfunctional is the understatement of a lifetime.
I suppose it is a telling sign that the only time I laughed during this entire film was at the sight of a dead cat. That would be the one and only time the screenplay by Ryan Murphy (who also directs) strikes any form of comedy. The rest of the film bounces senselessly from one sitcom scene to another, none of which have any punch line or purpose. This is truly the equivalent of watching a blank screen.
The fact that Murphy assembled what is a stellar ensemble cast makes the whole experience all the more baffling. Annette Bening probably does enough crying and goes through enough emotional traumas that she’ll garner an Oscar nod, but aside from her no one makes a noticeable impact, even Joseph Cross as Burroughs himself, due in large part to the idiotic characters in which they are playing. We, the audience, are too distracted by the idiocy on screen to fully absorb these performances. That is not a common occurrence.
I was assured by a colleague’s wife on the way out of the theater that Burroughs’ book is vastly superior to what is depicted here. Even at that, I can’t see myself ever picking up this memoir. It is hard to root at all for a film this punishing to watch, even if the events depicted are the pivotal years of an individual’s life. The worst kinds of film are those that waste time, money, and talent. Running with Scissors is guilty of all three criteria.
Studio: Sony Pictures
Length: 116 Minutes
Rating: R for strong language and elements of sexuality, violence and substance abuse.
Theatrical Release: October 20, 2006 (Limited) / October 27, 2006
Directed by: Ryan Murphy
Written by: Ryan Murphy. Based upon the book by Augusten Burroughs.
Cast: Annette Bening, Brian Cox, Joseph Fiennes, Evan Rachel Wood, Alec Baldwin, Joseph Cross