Running on Empty
“She looks like she’s dead. I think she’s finally at peace.”—Augusten Burroughs (Joseph Cross), Running with Scissors.
“I want to be grounded for sleeping with a 35-year-old Schizophrenic.”—as above
“Nobody’s gonna believe me anyway.” —as above
Boasting a nifty tag-line—“He’s looking forward to a memory he won’t have to suppress”, a playful retro-look and a fab ensemble cast—audiences might be understandably fooled into thinking Running with Scissors a tantalising prospect, even considering the authenticity of the source material is notoriously in dispute (the publication of the book drew a lawsuit from the Turcotte family on whom the dysfunctional Finchs are supposedly based). Those seeking the charming whimsy and frequent poignancy of the superficially similar The Royal Tenenbaums read on, and I implore you take heed. The title brings to mind the exuberant recklessness of childhood and the parental reminders intended to save us from harm. Hopefully these words will save you, dear readers, from a relatively harmless but still distinctly dull two hours, better spent contemplating the far-reaching, or otherwise, impact of one’s own childhood experiences.
Running with Scissors tells the story of Augusten Burroughs (Joseph Cross) and, in his words, “how my mother left me, and then I left my mother”. Augusten is only child of Deirdre (Annette Bening) and Norman (Alec Baldwin). He is stifled by his emotionally demanding failed-poet mother, who looks to her son for support and to provide artistic critiques of her work. His father despairs at his son’s idiosyncrasies; catching him boiling his allowance he despairingly comments “I really don’t see myself in you at all.”
After his parents’ separation in 1978, a teenage Augusten finds himself palmed off on his mother’s unconventional, controlling psychiatrist and his brood, whose approach to familial relations lead them resemble a kind-of quack-mafia. Dr. Finch (Brian Cox) manipulates the vulnerable Deirdre into total dependency; getting her hooked on an assortment of medication. Meanwhile chez-Finch Augusten finds a release in his friendship with the doctor’s rebellious daughter, Natalie (together they joyously tear down the kitchen ceiling), and enters into a sexual relationship with a much older man, the Finch’s adopted son, Neil Bookman (Joseph Fiennes).
The film differs from the 2002 best-selling memoirs by omitting several Finch siblings but many of its highly controversial sequences remain. For example, it features Dr Finch’s “masturbatorium”, a room which alarmingly adjoins his psychiatry office, and additionally a sequence where Natalie and Augusten play with an electric-shock machine. This material is interesting at least and there is an attempt to play these scenes for laughs. However, director Ryan Murphy lacks the requisite wicked flair for black-comedy, the levity is mishandled, and completely at odds with the intensity of performance and direction.
To be honest I didn’t have high-hopes from the creator of the vacuous TV-series Nip Tuck. As a comedy it is unforgivably unfunny and fatally fails to deliver as tragedy. The majority of its characters are simply too unpleasant to generate pathos. The cast is squandered dishearteningly and what one might assume to be the film’s biggest asset, and certainly its big draw, end up as celebrity-nails in its coffin.
Mad-person-of-choice Annette Bening has another bash at eccentricity, but her well-worn histrionics are getting tiresome. Gwyneth Paltrow as the Finch’s eldest daughter, Hope, is a prissy/demented middle-aged maid in perpetual need of a slap. Alec Baldwin appears withdrawn and disappointed, as if he were watching rather than starring in the film.
Particularly detrimental is Joseph Cross’ unaffecting turn as Augusten. Nasal and flat to the point of stoned, he plays enigmatic and damaged as blank and bored. His sporadic narrative in the form of journal entries is too infrequent and lacking in insight to engender empathy. But it would be churlish not to sing the praises of Evan Rachel Wood (seemingly reprising her role from 13); cigarette permanently in hand, irreverently dancing through her sister’s anguish. Similarly Jill Clayburgh, as the ineffective matriarch Agnes, is rather charming. Agnes is the most tragic and believable victim of Doctor Finch’s cult and is a dusty, relic of the Finch mansion mis-en-scene.
Despite this sterling work the personalities of the players are too hastily defined; the tragedy of their plights lost in cack-handed comedy and abrupt emotional release. It seems odd that the movie is so wilfully lacking in verisimilitude, considering the controversy surrounding what purports to be an auto-biographical source. Stylised (but derivative) direction and caricatured performances actively undermine the credibility of Augusten’s story. At best a curate’s egg of a film; visually striking yet unable to get to grips with its own absurdities. Those responsible for the carefully constructed aesthetics, which so effectively evoke the era, might be in need of a reminder that you can’t polish a turd.
The extras are minimal and consist of 10 trailers and thre featurettes which detail the back-story and making-of. If you can bear it there’s an interview with the real Augusten Burroughs talking about his “threshold for eccentricity” and his determination not “to option Running with Scissors for film”. Good job holding out there, Augusten.