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The title Running With Scissors elicits an image of reckless abandon, perfectly capturing the wild instability of its subject matter. Based on the bestselling memoir by Augusten Burroughs, the film transports us back to his adolescent days in the 1970s, a time where disco and the Cold War were the least of his worries. Would his mother ever pry her maternal instincts from the grips of psychosis? At 15, did he really have to live with her unstable pseudo-shrink while she fought to find herself? Could he find a fairy-tale ending with his 35-year-old schizophrenic male lover?
These were the questions that plagued Augusten’s mind, followed by the biggest one of all—would he ever have a normal life? Running with Scissors relays the stories of his out-of-whack childhood, and how against all odds, he survived it. The film is written, produced, and directed by Nip/Tuck creator Ryan Murphy, and it’s hard to think of a more-fitting movie to mark his feature directorial debut. His signature style is everywhere—from the dry wit in the script (“I smell manure—it’s coming out of your ears”) to the stylized, glossy shots accompanied by nostalgic tunes (“Bennie and the Jets” and “Blinded by the Light.”)
Likewise, it seems that Annette Bening was born to play the mentally ill mother with dreams of being a famous poet. Deidre Burroughs, a hybrid between Norma Desmond and Anne Sexton, strives to make the most of her life, but certainly doesn’t win any mom of the year trophies along the way. She loves her son, Augusten, played with soulful restraint by Joseph Cross, and tries to show it the best way she can: by scaring off his drunken father (Alec Baldwin), enabling him to cut school, and shipping him off to live with her morally-questionable shrink Dr. Finch (Brian Cox) and his equally nutty family.
In his new residence—where Christmas trees stay up for 2 years and shock-therapy is a more appealing game than Checkers—he is joined by the rebellious Natalie (Evan Rachel Wood); Bible-dipping Hope (Gwyneth Paltrow); kibble-eating, nurturing Agnes (Jill Clayburgh); and his inappropriate love interest, Neil Bookman (Joseph Fiennes). Running With Scissors, for better and worse, is a faithful adaptation of the memoir that both frightened and won over readers around the globe. It has the same strengths (biting humor, loads of originality), and same flaws (too many characters, not enough heart). Sometimes seeing a story come to life on a big screen can accentuate both angles a lot more intensely than anticipated.
Running with Scissors is packed with magnetic performances, and the talented actors prevent their parts from being shallow or one-dimensional—with the possible exception of Paltrow, who is given little to do besides torture her cat and use the Bible as an unlikely magic 8 ball. The problem is that, in retrospect, Running with Scissors is not a unified, flowing movie—it’s a few truly fantastic scenes thrown together between plot lulls. If you can appreciate the film as a series of quirky vignettes, without the depth needed to inspire and uplift, then there is plenty to enjoy here. While the movie may not be the next American Beauty, it does accomplish one glowing feat: it will make you reflect on your own dysfunctional youth, with a surprising wave of gratitude.