Cut-Out Witch
By Jeff Reichert

Running with Scissors
Dir. Ryan Murphy, U.S., Sony

The late-October appearance of Running with Scissors on screens around the country may well be the most ominous and crass declaration that cinematic Fall ’06 has begun. Yet another star-studded book-to-film spawned of that mostly unfortunate literary genre comprised of quirky memoirs penned by nobodies, Ryan Murphy’s (Nip/Tuck) adaptation of Augusten Burroughs’s book fulfills all the promise such an endeavor portends, which is to say, abysmally little. I have not, and after suffering through the film, will never approach a copy of Running with Scissors; coming fairly hot on the heels of The Devil Wears Prada (my wife on the book: “Don’t they have editors for this kind of thing?”) the two will be inextricably linked as 2006’s most conspicuous pair of middling-to-bad one performance movies adapted from bottom-tier travel literature.

Not unexpectedly, there’s already talk of an Annette Bening Academy Award nomination for her “emotionally searing”—or some such—turn as Augusten’s drug-addled, psychologically wrecked mother Deirdre, creating a perfect art-imitates-life-imitating-art climate for Christopher Guest’s For Your Consideration. A little buzz can go a long way in Tinseltown—Being Julia, anyone? (If I’m remembering correctly, the recipient of a stealthy “direct to older Academy members” release…) A queen of the art of overperforming (ahem, In Dreams), the kind that sucks in nominations like a black hole absorbs light, Bening’s probably more than off to the races for her fourth attempt. To return briefly to The Devil Wears Prada for a point of contrast: Meryl Streep, obviously having a great deal of fun as Fascist magazine editor Miranda Priestly, carries that film and nearly elevates it with a steely devilish glee. Bening, in spite all the emotional contortions required of her role, is also obviously enjoying herself a great deal in Scissors; this is, after all, the stuff Oscars are made of. What separates the two? Talent, of course.

Though Bening’s by turns mumbling, stupor-shrieking hysterical performance is one of the chief offenses offered by Running with Scissors, she’s by no means the only, or worst. Once it’s been decided that young Augusten should move in with his mom’s psychiatrist, Dr. Finch (Brian Cox), and his oh-so-wacky family, it all goes completely off the rails. Ryan Murphy’s (a TV man to the core) inept post-Wes Anderson take on the material sabotages the film at every opportunity, leaving his characters adrift in a succession of suffocatingly art directed and flatly lensed interiors. He’s picked up on Anderson’s idea of using living spaces as shorthand to reflect bits and pieces of personality, but taken it only so far as producing a generically dumpy run-down mansion playground that he and cinematographer Christopher Baffa (brought over from Nip/Tuck) don’t have the visual acuity to effectively probe.

There’s none of the overwhelming artificiality of an Anderson film here—the stuff that makes one realize you’ve stepped into a coherent, envisioned world and that all of what you’re watching is very much on purpose. The prickly, indefinite feeling of a creator’s hand might have helped smooth over some of the massive disjunction in the screenplay—given the genre, episodic construction is fine, but to have young Augusten (shrinking violet Joseph Cross) plotting a beauty empire in one scene, then discussing his potential literary career with his failed poet mother in the next with no explanation for the shift whatsoever is an unforgivable gaffe. Some sense of an overall vision might also have helped rescue a barely sketched cast of characters that makes the hateful population of Little Miss Sunshine look like creations of Henry James. In brief: Gwyneth Paltrow, Finch’s daughter Hope, really fucked up, kills her cat and stews it, wears braids and ruffles; Evan Rachel Wood, Finch’s other daughter Natalie, jailbait in hot pants and eye liner, also fucked up; Jill Clayburgh, Finch’s catatonic, embittered wife Agnes, stringy graying hair signifying years of neglect. Let’s also not forget Joseph Fiennes as Bookman, the tender-eyed schizophrenic pedophile (he introduces Augusten to homosexual intimacy) with an improbable moustache. For his part, Brian Cox seems to believe himself to be in an actual Wes Anderson movie rather than a cheap, shrill facsimile. Whether this is a good or bad thing is anyone’s guess.

In A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius (another “nobody memoir”), Dave Eggers had the good sense to wrap his remembrances up in a host of swirling artifices—the work doesn’t always speak of staggering genius, but often achieves a fair bit of heartbreak as a result. It’s a similar kind of pathos-filled transcendence that Running with Scissors strives mightily towards, but never comes close to achieving in its filmic incarnation (though I’d wager that many of the film’s problems are fully rooted in the source material). The closest Murphy comes to staging some kind of catharsis is a scene that finds Natalie and Augusten busting a hole in the kitchen ceiling with broomsticks while Fiennes runs through a tantrum in therapy upstairs; the whole thing set to a Seventies pop gem that I’ve already forgotten only a day later. Calculated uplift is the order of the day here: Nearly every scene hinges around an argument or confrontation, and if the scene that follows bears any relationship to the preceding one, it’s only to stick audiences with a little bit of feel-good mawkishness. Most criminally, Murphy places the real Burroughs next to young Cross in a shot over the credits, leeringly winking: “See, he turned out all right in the end, eh?” It made me feel as though I’d just been through Jonathan Caouette’s Tarnation for a second time.

A brief moment very early in Running with Scissors is telling of what’s to follow: Alec Baldwin (extending his recent career renaissance in the film’s only credible performance as Augusten’s father, Norman), paunchy and puffy, stung by a verbal harangue from his wife, looks down at the tinfoil-bedecked family dog, equally paunchy and puffy. The two share a sad glance, almost as if to say: What the fuck are we doing here? It’s a question you might ask yourself as Running with Scissorsstretches out into the entirety of its bloated two-hour length. Summing up this utter disaster better and more succinctly than I possibly could is Chicago Reader’s Jonathan Rosenbaum: “Maybe all this really happened, but I didn’t believe a second of it as portrayed.”