Augusten Burroughs spent most of the 1970s either living with his eccentric mother or staying with the family of his mother's psychiatrist. The head doctor's home gave a new meaning to the term "madhouse," and Burroughs mined his personal story for the popular memoir Running With Scissors. Writer/director Ryan Murphy, the creator of the TV shows "Popular" and "Nip/Tuck," has now tackled the material for the silver screen, painting the strangeness in the solid colors of cinema.
Joseph Cross, who played the brother in the Strangers With Candy movie (another dark comedy about bizarre family relationships), plays the teenage Augusten. He has spent most of his life listening to his parents fight and to his mother's delusions of grandeur. Deirdre (Annette Benning, American Beauty) is a poet who thinks she will be famous one day; that is if her paranoid fantasies of her alcoholic husband (Alec Baldwin, The Departed) don't come true. She enlists Dr. Finch (Brian Cox, "Deadwood") as her personal form of crime prevention. He convinces Augusten's dad to leave, and then he ups Deirdre's prescriptions and brings Augusten into his home, claiming it's for the good of both of them.
The Finch house is a mess of psychoses. Its bright pink exterior and the heaps of trash everywhere stand tall as physical manifestations of the various problems of Finch's family. His wife, Agnes (Jill Clayburgh, An Unmarried Woman), has completely withdrawn from life, barely functioning as a caregiver to the family she wants to protect. The daughters Hope (Gwyneth Paltrow, Proof) and Nathalie (Evan Rachel Wood, Thirteen) are competing polar opposites: one is a chaste animal lover and the other is a Lolita-like smart mouth. There is also an adopted son, Bookman (Joseph Fiennes, Shakespeare In Love), who came to the Finch house to fix his mental problems but was soon sent packing. He gets involved in an affair with Augusten after they attend a Lina Wertmüller film festival.
Augusten doesn't like being separated from his mother, and despite the pain it causes him and Dr. Finch's own selfish motives, the change is going to do him some good. The distortion of reality life with the Finches causes is the catalyst for exposing the truth that will allow him to stand on his own two feet.
Murphy attempts to get into the spirit of the madness, relishing in the horrendous, haphazard decoration in the home and clearly enjoying dressing his cast in some hideous '70s fashions. He has cast the film well and gotten at a lot of what is essential in the story, but Running With Scissors falters under the director's inability to find the right tone. Some scenes come off as Murphy recreating the over-the-top satire he used in "Popular," and in others he is cribbing from Noah Baumbach's story of braniac misfits, The Squid and the Whale. What happens is that by trying to be both, he consigns much of Running With Scissors to the middle of the road. The gonzo comedy doesn't feel like it ever takes off, and the smart bits are too self-aware. Thus, many scenes fall flat.
Which isn't to say there aren't some good laughs. The characters in Running With Scissors are so out there, it's hard not to pull some chuckles out of them. Dr. Finch extolling the virtues of predicting good fortune through the swirl of his stool samples or young Augusten's compulsive coin polishing are just inherently funny situations. The problem with Murphy trying to have it both ways is that eventually, Deirdre's mental illness and Dr. Finch's manipulation is going to stop being funny, and the movie is tentative in its initial steps over that line. This means there are a few scenes that still get laughs even though they shouldn't, and it's certainly not the audience's fault for not being able to close the gap on the movie's split personality. It's only when the movie finally makes the full transition that Running With Scissors really clicks. When Augusten has had enough, I was surprised by how much I was on his side. The final scenes are full of honest warmth, and its glow casts back over the rest of the film so that we can reconcile with our mixed feelings about the trauma that got us there. It's hard to tell if that was Murphy's design or if he just got lucky, but either way, it saves his movie from falling victim to its problematic mental hang-ups.
Jamie S. Rich is a novelist and comic book writer. He is best known for his collaborations with Joelle Jones, including the hardboiled crime comic book You Have Killed Me, the challenging romance 12 Reasons Why I Love Her, and the 2007 prose novel Have You Seen the Horizon Lately?, for which Jones did the cover. All three were published by Oni Press. His most recent project is the superhero series It Girl and the Atomics and the futuristic romance A Boy and a Girl with Natalie Nourigat. Follow Rich's blog at Confessions123.com.