21 October 2006 | samseescinema
Running with Scissors is strange and psychotically contagious
Running with Scissors reviewed by Sam Osborn
I've become all too wary of memoirs lately. Not because of the James Frey debacle, but because they've become the literary equivalent of the biopic at the movies. Just as I've grown tired of seeing the rise and inevitable fall of infamous icons during Oscar season, I've grown tired of plowing through the literary lives of men and women compelled to account their abusive childhoods, sexual deviancy, problems with drugs and alcohol, and, the real must, their harebrained families. The books sell well because readers love gossip, scandal, and melodrama. Running with Scissors has no shortage of such pulpy details, as its hero, Augusten Burroughs, has all the makings of memoir sentimentality. He was born into a selfish, dysfunctional family, adopted by his mother's psychiatrist, attempted suicide, turned out to be gay, and was exposed to sex at a young age under the hands of a man much past his age. His life was, if nothing else, screwed up enough to put into a book. But while I'm a pessimist to the genre, Running with Scissors is strange and psychotically contagious.
To oversimplify the matter, the film is a collection of people dealing with their issues. Heading up the Burroughs family is Norman Burroughs (Alec Baldwin), a business man with the sedated lick of alcoholism whose only wish seems to be to sidestep his wife's raging narcissism. Dierdre (Annete Bening), his wife, is a selfish would-be writing starlet whose lack of talent is constantly at odds with the confidence that she deserves a Nobel Prize. Her failure she blames on the supposed acts of sabotage by Norman, of which she confides in her only son Augusten. The family begins counseling with Doctor Finch (Brian Cox), the man who eventually adopts Augusten when Norman walks out and Dierdre begins popping Valium like prescription Skittles. The Finch family seems to be no upgrade though, as Agnes (Jill Clayburgh), the mother, is first seen munching on dog kibble, Hope (Gwyneth Paltrow), the favored daughter, is known to talk to her cat Freud, and Natalie (Evan Rachel Wood), the second daughter, tries to open Augusten up by using electro-shock therapy. Their home is an old-money palace painted blazing pink, with various lawn furniture, cobbled windows, and a Christmas tree that's been erect for over two years.
My Mother happens to be mildly obsessed with Augusten Burroughs. She speaks of his stories and literary adventures as though they're the loopy reveries of a second son she birthed into paperback. So several months ago I took her to our hometown bookshop, The Boulder Bookstore, to see Mr. Burroughs speak on his most recent book, Magical Thinking. I'd read a few of his stories at my Mom's urgent requests and flipped through a couple chapters of his first memoir (the film's source), Running with Scissors, in preparation. I knew enough, I felt, to hold my own in a book signing. But as the first hand was raised during the Q&A segment of the presentation, a woman asked how Augusten's dog was doing, how his partner was holding up, if they'd purchased that house he mentioned, and if those shoes were still in mint condition. I was obviously behind the curve. Mr. Burroughs has entrusted so much of his intimate life with his writing. It's organic and swelling with humor drawn from a frank self-awareness that doesn't embarrass him or his readers. His audience isn't a third-party to his life, they're all his closest friends; quite a job for rookie feature Writer/Director Ryan Murphy.
Murphy approaches the material very cinematically, using every magic trick offered to him by his technicians. This is no shaky, documentary-style memoir that shreds cinema to the tatters of the broken characters on screen. Murphy's characters are heightened to hyperbolic altitude, but are anchored to a reality only gotten from the pages of non-fiction accounting. His film is tightly-knit, too, with every line of dialogue truly used and with characters' stories intertwined into a family of glowing psychosis. It makes for a film constructed from quirk and color, but Murphy's characters can't seem to escape from being so human. They deal with their issues, but like humans, rarely manage to solve them. It can be appalling and sometimes painful, but Burroughs and Murphy's stories are just too lovely to turn your back to.
Rating: 3.5 out of 4