If you find the extreme absurdity of “Running With Scissors” to be distancing, the actors’ stirring performances will reel you back in. Based on the bestselling memoir of Augusten Burroughs, the acute surreality of the story makes it almost impossible to fully believe — it’s a true story that somehow rings false. Directed by television’s “Nip/Tuck” creator Ryan Murphy, “Running With Scissors” is an almost oppressively outrageous tragicomedy about Mr. Burroughs’ (played in the film by Joseph Cross) simultaneously appalling and laugh-out-loud funny adolescence.
Augusten’s story begins in the early ’70s when his mother, Deirdre Burroughs (exquisitely embodied by the continually impressive Annette Benning), decides that her alcoholic husband Norman (a skillfully restrained Alec Baldwin) is strangling her creativity and is threatening to kill her. Deirdre, a self-published poet with delusions of grandeur and a penchant for Anne Sexton-inspired verse (“Get the rage on the page, women!”), seeks the help of a brilliantly eccentric psychiatrist named Dr. Finch (Brian Cox).
Unfortunately for the Burroughses, the insane are running the asylum. Dr. Finch, who is by turns charming and utterly terrifying, has a masturbatorium connected to his professional office, reads his feces as portents from God and casually dispenses Valium pills as if they were breath mints. And, as we discover when Augusten’s parents leave him on the Finches’ crumbling doorstep, the doctor lives in a garbage-strewn, bubblegum-pink mansion where dishes are piled high to the ceiling, and the Christmas tree never comes down.
And thus, as Norman walks out of his son’s life and Deirdre checks into a motel to “unblock her unconscious,” the 13-year-old Augusten comes to live with the Finches for two years. Finch’s wife Agnes (Jill Clayburgh in a tender, particularly moving performance) spends her time watching old black-and-white horror movies and munching on dog food in a near catatonic state, while his eldest daughter, Hope (a woefully underused Gwyneth Paltrow), is an absurdly religious young woman who believes she can talk to her cat, Freud. But Augusten latches on to Hope’s younger sister Natalie (Evan Rachel Wood), a sexually precocious disco vamp who introduces him to his first love, a 35-year-old schizophrenic named Neil Bookman (Joseph Fiennes). Wes Anderson probably couldn’t have come up with a more impressively quirky ensemble.
For all the excitement of such a wonderful ensemble and such deliciously complex roles, little insight is offered into any character except Augusten’s. We witness Deirdre’s mental collapse but are never really sure what caused it. We see Mrs. Finch eating kibble on the couch, but we never find out what made her this way. Everyone remains rather two-dimensional through the filtered lens of Mr. Burroughs’ adolescence.
This frantic lunacy is easily distracting, but Murphy seems more interested in recreating Augusten’s experience rather than just recounting his tale. And given the disjointed, wildly unpredictable turn of his adolescent life, it’s no wonder that sometimes the momentum and coherency of the narrative get a bit lost.
For all the film’s brightness and comic surely-this-can’t-be-happening outlandishness, Murphy never lets us fully escape the story’s undeniable tragedy. There is a thin veneer of humor glossing over and running throughout the film, but beneath this comic surface a profound melancholia pervades. “Running With Scissors” is humorous only insofar as we manage to forget that it is based on the personal memoirs of a troubled teenage boy.
Audience members may find themselves unsure whether they should laugh or cry. Baldwin’s performance, in particular, highlights the underlying tension between comedy and tragedy: At times his deadpan delivery may elicit laughter, but Baldwin never forgets that his character is not in on the joke.
Though it is perhaps easy to pity the young Augusten, “Running With Scissors” is a testament to our ability to overcome even the most tragic pasts. Indeed, in Burroughs’ case, his angsty youth provided valuable fodder for a lucrative writing career. As Dr. Finch says, “Where would we be without our painful childhoods?”
Running With Scissors
Dir: Ryan Murphy