Running with Scissors

| December 10, 2006

Would it be odd to say that Annette Bening being a great actress has actually done a disservice to a movie? Not if the movie happens to be Running with Scissors, based on Augusten Burroughs’ memoir. Bening’s performance in the film is, perhap,s one of its fatal flaws; she is so committed and excellent in the role that she dwarfs almost everything else in the movie, making the entire proceeding a mockery of the source material. The movie suffers from a lack of point-of-view: it should be Augusten Burroughs’ (Joseph Cross) story, but it cannot resist bringing us back for a little more of crazy-mom Dierdre (Bening).
The problem could also lie in inane ’70s pop tracks, filled with forced nostalgia, cropping up every five to 10 minutes on the soundtrack. The most severe infraction of music cues is in utilizing Nat “King” Cole’s “Quizas, Quizas, Quizas”;– developed to great effect in Kar Wai Wong’s In the Mood for Love–in a scene that is supposed to resemble The Exorcist; it only reveals how shallow this movie is when compared to another’s brilliance. Just look over the songs listed on the soundtrack album; they play like a retrospective “Best of the ’70s!” CD. You could probably find an album with an identical track list in the $5.99 bin at Tower Records.
The household in which Burroughs grew up, that of the literally anal-retentive Dr. Finch (Brian Cox) and his family, is treated as a complete freakshow of misanthropes and social rejects. Burroughs himself is portrayed as though he can not stand to be around them (yet he spent nearly five years among this brood), and the ridiculously inappropriate relationship between an adolescent Burroughs and 34-year-old Neal Bookman (a histrionic and unconvincing Joseph Fiennes) is treated with no real danger; it’s played as clean as can be, which is odd, seeing as how the rest of the movie’s a mess.
The performances are all that truly stand out in Running with Scissors, and not all are bright spots. Gwyneth Paltrow shows how desperately she wants another role to show her range, so help her God, but comes up with a pale imitation of the reformed Axl Rose (creepy braids included). Cox, in the role of Dr. Finch, plays as though he is laughing at his character’s antics without grounding them in something serious; according to Burroughs, these things actually happened, and this Dr. Finch does not evince many realistic moments. Aside from Bening, Jill Clayburgh as Agnes Finch is outstanding, as is 19-year-old Evan Rachel Wood, who provides an amazing performance as Natalie Finch, but should really be wising up and performing in movies with substance.
The film plays slickly and distantly, much like an episode of writer/director Ryan Murphy’s nightmarish television creation Nip/Tuck; however–and it pains me to say–unlike that show, there’s no fun or humor presented to the goings-on of a rather fun-filled and humorous memoir of growing up in the ’70s. Even when Burroughs is at his worst in the memoir, we’re engrossed and empathize with the pangs of adolescent confusion. In the film, all the events are antiseptically nasty and remote from what should be Burroughs’ experiences, leaving the audience just plain confused.

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