Running With Scissors

Ryan Murphy, better known as the creator of TVs Nip/Tuck, makes a disappointingly rough transition to the big screen as the writer-director of Running With Scissors, based on the popular memoir by Augusten Burroughs.

The best element of this severely flawed adaptation is maintaining the books hilariously reckless yet accurate title.

The worst elements are many more: Excessive running time (116 minutes of dysfunctionalism is more than one can tolerate even in a decent movie); Annette Benings over-the-top-performance as the neurotic mother; and above all, the films lack of unified vision and look.

Indeed, under Murphy's crude direction, what was zany but understated in the book becomes overstated and vulgar in the movie. This is yet another case in which a vividly and even dangerously autobiographical text becomes a tepid movie that never finds its emotional core or right tone.

Despite a stellar cast, that also includes Alec Baldwin, Gwyneth Paltrow, and Brian Cox, commercial prospects for this eagerly awaited rendition are bad due to its off-putting nature. Raising the bar to an extreme, Running With Scissors gives a bad name to the dysfunctional family movie, an overly exploited genre that perhaps should be put to rest for a while.

The tale chronicles the early life of Augusten Burroughs (Joseph Cross), whose middle-class childhood was damaged (to say the least) by his unconventional upbringing. His deeply neurotic mother Deirdre (Bening) is a frustrated, unpublished poet, whereas his father Norman (Alec Baldwin) is an abusive alcoholic.

To repair their crumbling marriage, the couple begins therapy with Dr. Finch (Brian Cox), who suggests daily five-hour sessions! Wildly nontraditional, Finch is the kind of shrink whose office contains a “Masturbatorium,” where he occasionally relaxes. He is also the type of psychoanalyst who doesnt hesitate to wake his family in the middle of the night to show them what he has just produced in the bathroom.

When it becomes clear that the marriage is beyond repair, Augusten, now a teenager, is sent to live with the doctor and his family at their gothic-style house, which the director proudly claims to have treated as a legit character of the drama. The cluttered setting seems to be inspired by the bleak drawings of Edward Gorey.

Once there, Augusten encounters yet another set of dysfunctional characters. Mrs. Finch (Jill Clayburgh) is a meek, nearly catatonic wife, who spends her time watching old movies while nibbling on dog food. The Finches have two daughters: Hope (Gwyneth Paltrow), who is obsessed with the Bible, and Natalie (Evan Rachel Wood), a precocious teenager who bonds with Augusten by experimenting with electric-shock therapy. The family also claims a mysteriously adopted son, the profoundly disturbed Neil Bookman (Joseph Fiennes), with whom Augusten gets to explore his own sexuality.

Episodic in structure in the manner of a TV series, the film assumes the shape of a messy surreal black comedy of the absurd. And the fact that it is based on very personal material doesnt make the events or the characters more credible or compelling–even in movie terms.

With half of the cast over-acting, and the other half under-acting, the mood changes from scene to scene, and often within the same scene, calling attention to the directors shortcomings in the acting department.

As the monstrously narcissistic mom prone to psychosis and bad poetry, Bening gives a ferociously excessive performance. Though she plays a very different kind of housewife from the one in American Beauty shes equally bad. As the outrageous doctor, Brian Cox also overplays, often to great comic effect.

In contrast, Alec Baldwin and Evan Rachel Wood impressively underplay. Jill Clayburgh, whos made-up to look grotesque (just as she was as a guest star in Nip/Tuck), has several touching scenes toward the end.

Watching Paltrow as the damaged daughter recalls her performance in the far superior dysfunctional family film, Wes Andersons The Royal Tennenbaums. And seeing her together with Joseph Fiennes in the same household also brings better memories of their last far more successful teaming, in Shakespeare in Love.

As the young Burroughs, Cross renders a sensitive, often touching portrait that gives the movie a semblance of emotional center. At the end, for no apparent reason, Murphy shows the young actor and his real-life inspiration sharing the screen together.

The films basic faults possibly derive from Murphys lack of experience. A novice feature filmmaker, he stages the scenes broadly as if he were directing episodes of Nip/Tuck. It doesnt help that he often sets the camera in the wrong place, which distorts even more the already eschewed material.

Visually, too, Murphy opts for an elaborate retro 1970s style, courtesy of director of photography Christopher Baffa and production designer Richard Sherman, which results in a kitschy, visually unappealing picture.

I am not a big fan of the dysfunctional family genre, but for sheer fun, its better to see the indie Little Miss Sunshine, which, by comparison seems fresh and functional. Ultimately, Running With Scissors calls attention to the inherent differences between literature and film as mediums of entertainment, showing that whats permissible and exhilarating on the written page may not be as effective on the big screen, particularly when done by an inept director.