Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Running With Scissors

Director: Ryan Murphy
Starring: Annette Bening, Brian Cox, Joseph Fiennes, Joseph Cross, Evan Rachel Wood, Alec Baldwin, Jill Clayburgh, Gwyneth Paltrow, Gabrielle Union, Kristen Chenoweth

Running Time: 126 min.
Rating: R


*** (out of ****)

"It ain't reality, just someone else's sentimentality.
It won't work for you Baby boomers selling you rumors of their history. Forcing youth away from the truth of what's real today The kids of today should defend themselves against the 70's."
-Eddie Vedder

There have been some questions as to just how much of what happens in Augusten Burroughs' best selling memoir Running with Scissors (which I haven't read) is completely fact based. For Burroughs' sake and our own I almost hope none of it is because that would mean some of the characters we meet during the course of Ryan Murphy's cinematic adaptation of the novel could still be roaming the streets. That's a scary thought, but one I'm not discounting because I have no doubt that people at least similar to the ones depicted in this film do actually exist.

Running with Scissors
was widely regarded by audiences and critics as the single worst film of 2006 and I can completely see why. After posting this review I'm sure I'll get feedback telling me all the different ways this movie is terrible and I'll likely agree with every single one of them. However, something very unusual happened for me while watching this that I'm forced to give in and admit it. Against all good judgment and logic I was actually enjoying it and by the time it was over I couldn't deny it was a memorable experience. It was like watching a train wreck and I must say I laughed much of the way through.

The film is a complete mess. It's tone is inconsistent, the performances are over the top, its two hour running time feels like days and the movie runs out of steam three quarters of the way through. When it was over I felt like I needed to enter therapy myself. Yet, it works. Actually no, let me re-phrase that. It doesn't work exactly, but for better or worse, it sure is entertaining. And given the characters and the story I can't imagine any other style in which this movie could have been made. The story also somehow manages to come together in the end and have a lot of heart, despite its insanity.

We're told the story of fourteen year-old Augusten Burroughs (Joseph Cross) who struggles to survive the disintegration of his parents' marriage in 1978. His mother Deirdre (Annnette Bening) is a delusional aspiring poet prone to fits of rage and frequent emotional and physical battles with her alcoholic husband Norman (a great, dry Alec Baldwin) whom she claims will eventually kill her. To say this woman is mentally ill would likely be the understatement of the century, but one of the best things about the movie is even though the part is written as broad caricature Bening digs deeper than that and lets us see her vulnerability even in her most absurd fits of silliness (and believe me there are plenty).

The Burroughs' seek marriage counseling from psychiatrist Dr. Finch, who's part father figure, part psychotic Svengali and has a room adjacent to his office he refers to as his "masturbatorium." You could probably guess what he proudly uses it for. The Burroughs' separate, Norman moves out and Augusten is sent to live with Dr. Finch and his bizarre family while Deidre is shacked up in a hotel, over-medicated with her mental health slowly cracking away. She also turns to lesbianism with a woman she verbally abuses in her poetry group (played by Kristen Chenoweth) because... well, let's just say the movie is weird.

What young Augusten finds when he arrives at the Finch's giant pink house of horrors would be enough to traumatize any human being for life, but as rendered onscreen, it's pretty damn funny. We meet Dr. Finch's wife Agnes (Jill Clayburgh) who's had the Christmas tree up for two years and spends her days on the couch watching Dark Shadows and eating dog food. His oldest daughter Hope (Gwyneth Paltrow) traps her cat in a laundry basket for a week without food or water and uses the Bible as a magic eight ball guiding her on what they should have for dinner.

The youngest daughter Natalie (Evan Rachel Wood) is a teenage sexpot who likes to play with her father's electroshock therapy machine, but is actually the most normal of the bunch. She wants to go to college but is trapped by the craziness that surrounds her. Augusten immediately forms a bond with her that should go further than friendship but can't since Augusten is gay. I think it's this relationship that gives the movie it's emotional weight and focus. The Finches also have a frequent houseguest in Neil Bookman (an unrecognizable Joseph Fiennes) a patient and adopted son of Dr. Finch who still comes in for therapy sessions and sneaks into the house at night to try and stab him with scissors. He starts a sexual relationship with Augusten, crueling and clumsily initiating him into the adult world way too early. When I say Fiennes is unrecognizable in this role I mean it. I had no idea it was him until glimpsing the final credits.

The movie grabs us by the throat and chokes us with 70's nostalgia. This film isn't just set in the 70's, it is the 70's. It dives head first into the garish fashions, disgusting d├ęcor, and pop music that permeated through the latter part of the decade. The set and costume design on this movie is absolutely top notch and the Finch house is not just a setting, it's a character in the film. A historical artitifact of the time representing the absolute worst of the decade. Director Murphy (creator of t.v.'s Nip/Tuck) really got this right.

The pop music of the time is hilariously and inappropriately misplaced throughout the film on many occasions to the point where I started to wonder if this may have been done intentionally as a joke. Whether it was or not I could care less. It was funny and entertaining either way. I'm never a fan of music forcing it's way into a motion picture but the marriage of seventies pop music and the offbeat insane characters that populate this blackest of black comedies strangely makes a lot of sense.

If someone told me I had to make a movie and could assemble any all-star team of actors I wanted, there's a good chance I would cast many of the stars of this movie. Running with Scissors is no way Oscar worthy, but a few of the performances could be. There are those who are going to love Annette Bening's Golden Globe nominated turn as the mentally ill Deidre and those who will absolutely hate it with a passion. I can't argue with either one, but you could probably guess which side of the fence I fall on. One thing that can't be debated, however, is that Bening is one talented lady and it took a lot of guts for her to take this on.

Brian Cox lets the humanity seap through as Dr. Finch, who could have easily just been portrayed as a manipulative old quack. Cox never lets it go there and gives us the impression he may actually be a good man with pure intentions, he just flys off the deep end. He also manages to get the biggest laughs of the film. Gwyneth Paltrow's role as Hope is so small it could almost be considered a cameo but she makes the most of what she has and is an important character in establishing the unhappiness and craziness that accompanies the Finch family and the film.

The entire movie, though, belongs to Cross and Wood and their performances as disaffected youths ground the film and help it eventually become what it wants to be: a coming of age tale. They share the screen for the film's best scene when they demolish the kitchen ceiling as Al Stewart's "Year of the Cat" blasts over the soundtrack. Their ceiling, but more importantly their world, is closing in and they need to escape everything the only way they know how. As Augusten, Cross is a spectator to the insanity that sorrounds him, while deftly hinting at the despair and lonliness lying just beneath the surface. Wood continues to prove she's one of our most promising young actresses giving Natalie the proper mix of anger, sexiness and vulnerability. Watching, you may feel like them. Trapped, confused and looking for a way out. That was the point.

The movie did something I really liked at the end and told us what happened to the real people these characters were based on. If I'm going to spend two hours with these characters I'd like to know what happened to them. This leads to a nice moment where the real Augusten Burroughs shares the screen with his movie counterpart. You could take exception with this and claim Burroughs is just patting himself on the back but in my book anyone who lived through something like this deserves at the very least a pat on the back. I'd even go as far as to say they deserve a book deal and a movie about their life.

Saying this film isn't for all tastes doesn't quite do it justice. It really isn't for any tastes and doesn't pull any punches. It has balls of steel. The term "it's so bad it's good" was never more applicable than it is here. When it was over I was sure I hated it, but then I realized I wouldn't soon forget a single character, performance or line in the film and I had witnessed an interesting exporation of mental illness and its consequences. More importantly, I had witnessed a story that at it's core is about overcoming adversity and coming out on the other side okay. Congratulate Augusten Burroughs, but more importantly congratulate yourselves if you can sit through it. Running With Scissors is a disaster, but an unforgettable one.

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