Stumbling with Nail Clippers

Jennifer Makowsky
Joseph Cross and Annette Bening as Augusten and Deirdre Burroughs in Running with Scissors

It was one of the most talked about tomes upon its release. Unfortunately, our literary liaison for all things film thinks that Augusten Burrough's mesmerizing memoir was definitely defanged in the cinematic translation.

Beginning with an epigraph by Jules Renard, "Look for the ridiculous in everything and you will find it", Running with Scissors is proof positive that truth is stranger than fiction. It’s also the perfect example of an excellent memoir made into a reasonably decent movie that could have actually been much more powerful had the film makers been more willing to embrace the book’s raw, shocking subject matter.

The book, a black comedy about author Augusten Burrough’s dysfunctional childhood and adolescence in Massachusetts, truly holds nothing back. I found myself simultaneously cracking up and writhing in horror as Burroughs describes his bleak family life rife with afflictions like alcoholism, abuse, severe mental illness, and rape. What could have easily become a pity party is instead a hilarious yet touching (and terrifying) account of survival. And it's all thanks to Burrough’s witty observances and sharp eye for humor in even the direst circumstances.

The book begins by introducing us to a young, tidy Augusten, who worships his delusional, pill-popping mother while dodging his alcoholic father. He compares his dad's demeanor to “the loving, affectionate and outgoing personality of petrified wood.” It doesn’t take long for things to go from abnormal to outrageous. His mother Deidre, who has thrived on her son’s attention and feedback (especially where her banal poetry is concerned), quickly becomes cold as rejection letters from the New Yorker roll in and her neurosis deepens. As the fights between her and her husband escalate -- some even ending in bloodshed -- a specialist named Dr. Finch is called in. This is when things get good.

Dr. Finch, the man who Augusten’s mother turns to in order to treat her psychosis, is an individual who should obviously be on the couch himself. Augusten starts off comparing Dr. Finch to Santa Claus, pointing out his “jolly, red-faced cheeks and his easy smile.” But when the doctor introduces the boy and his mother to his “Masturbatorium” -- a room adjacent to his office used for just what it sounds like -- it’s obvious he is no typical mental health professional. Regrettably for Augusten, this man is to become his adopted father after Deidre decides that she can’t deal with being a mother anymore.

As with most big screen adaptations, while most of the acting is very good, the majority of the film’s characters are unlike their literary equivalents. In the movie, Dr. Finch (Brian Cox) doesn’t physically fit the picture Burroughs painted in his story. While reading the book, I imagined a large, easygoing, slightly disheveled hippie. Instead, I was presented with a conservative, pipe-smoking Freud wannabe. Similar misrepresentation of other Finch family members occurs throughout the film, as well. Natalie (Evan Rachel Wood) is much more glamorous and well kept on celluloid than the large, dumpy girl who throws sardines out the window at the people on the street below as described in the memoir.

Natalie’s older sister, Hope (Gwyneth Paltrow), is practically absent literally and mentally. When she is on screen, Paltrow looks lost and bored much of the time. This is a shame because Hope has a bigger role and a much larger personality in the book. At one point, she fooled me into believing she would live up to her name by being the one levelheaded member of the family. Unfortunately she, too, inevitably goes off the deep end, convinced that her cat is communicating with her (apparently, it's dying and wants her help).

The matriarch of the house is Dr. Finch’s wife, Agnes (Jill Clayburgh). On screen Agnes is a quiet, morose, and lonely character with greasy gray hair and a weary expression. But in the book she has a violet perm and is loud and unwilling to let her daughters insult or push her around. While both versions of Agnes snack on dog food, the book version of Agnes is a more spirited and funny dame.

Then there’s the house the Finch family lives in. Upon first seeing the pink anomaly amidst the immaculate suburban neighborhood of well-kept Victorian houses it’s located in, Augusten is horrified. He writes, “in a neighborhood of whispers, it was a shriek.” The inside of the house is even more unexpected: a ramshackle mess of overturned furniture, haphazard appliances, teetering stacks of dirty dishes, and scrambling cockroaches.

The house, like the offbeat Finch family, becomes another character in the book. Sadly, the film even skews this. In the movie, the old homestead is indeed an antique cluttered mess, but nothing like the display of squalor described in the book. There is nothing onscreen comparable to the electric knife hanging from a curtain rod and mounds of human shit and cat hair described by Augusten.

Altogether, the Finch family and their house are represented as rather romantic and gothic in the movie. In one scene where the family is burying Hope’s fatalistic feline, they call to mind the Addams Family; each dressed in black, wearing long faces, and standing beneath wilting black umbrellas while the crimson mansion stretches out behind them. For a moment they appear orderly, and there’s a timeless quality that suggests they could be from any one of several decades. In the book, however, the family and their house are deeply rooted in the '70s . . . as well as absolute chaos.

Two characters the movie did get right were Augusten’s parents, played by Alec Baldwin and Annette Bening. Baldwin’s deadbeat dad, Norman, is the one cast member that closest resembles the bastard he is based on. He looks exactly like the expressionless hulk in the book, a man who pours himself highballs and dismisses his son by flatly observing, “I see nothing of myself in you.” In direct contrast to his clammy cold fish demeanor, Annette Bening nails the self-centered, drama queen who suddenly shrugs off her son like an uncomfortable coat. Bening is already being considered for nominations this award season and I can see why. In addition to lending some much needed comedy to the film, she drives home the heartbreak of such a dysfunctional mother / son relationship.

Unfortunately, the character of Augusten isn’t captured with the same authentically as that of his parents. While Joseph Cross nicely contrasts Bening as the sensible teenage Augusten, he is not nearly as interesting as the narrator in the book. This discrepancy is probably due to the fact that, in the film, we are missing Burrough’s wry internalizing, a clever comic commentary on his surroundings and the people who inhabit them.

Another mistake the movie makes is to sugarcoat the events that take place in the book, which is surprising since it was directed by nip/tuck creator Ryan Murphy (someone who is no stranger to cringe-worthy storylines). While he does insert some showy visuals and musical montages, i.e., the ceiling bashing scene, he misses the opportunity to really hammer home the more horrific happenings, which could have lent more to the film’s power and authenticity.

A perfect example of this is the sequence when we are introduced to Augusten’s boyfriend, 35-five-year-old Neil Bookman (Joseph Fines). In the film, Bookman is typified as a mentally ill individual, but not nearly as disturbed as the deranged pedophile in the book. Not surprisingly, Augusten’s mother is approving of her son’s relationship with the predator, as is Dr. Finch, who also happens to be Bookman’s adopted father.

In the film, Augusten (whose age is changed from 13 to 15-years-old) and Bookman have some disturbing sex scenes together, but nothing close to the barbaric rape scene in which the older man “introduces” the youth to the world of gay sex. While the scene in the book may be difficult to read, it’s an integral part of the story and necessary to really understand the tragic disconnection between Augusten and the adults in his life.

I don’t think that Running with Scissors is a bad movie. In fact, I probably would have liked it a lot more had I not read the book first. Sadly, all I noticed were all the brilliant plot opportunities that could have been taken advantage of, but were not. Consequently, somewhere in the translation between page and celluloid, the story loses its edge. While Burroughs may have been running with a sharp pair of sheers while writing his memoir, Ryan Murphy was stumbling with a dull pair of nail clippers as he was making this film.

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