Based on a set of memoirs, Running With Scissors is a dark, harrowing film. The memoir on which the film is based has been highly praised as funny, touching, and potent. Directed by Ryan Murphy, creator of the turbulent TV show Nip/Tuck, the film version doesn't seem to able to encompass all that the autobiography was. The result is a very uneven experience. You're never sure if you're meant to laugh, or cry, or be shocked.
Augusten Burroughs (Joseph Cross from TV's Strangers With Candy), the son of an unstable mother (Annette Benning) and an alcoholic father (Alec Baldwin), finds himself a victim of his mother's lunacy. She begins to see Dr. Finch (Brian Cox), a doctor on the far fringes of the medical profession, who wraps Deidre around his little finger. He convinces her to give him legal custody of Augusten, which she does without even discussing it with Augusten. The Finch family consists of Dr. Finch, Agnes (Jill Clayburgh), his daughters Hope (Gwyneth Paltrow) and Natalie (Evan Rachel Wood). Also there is a semi-estranged adopted son, Neil Bookman (Joseph Fiennes). Augusten begins a sexual relationship with Neil, despite Neil having deep psychological problems. Finch, meanwhile, cultivates an air of eccentricity in the house and with his patients. But without any kind of structure, the family struggles to hold on.
Running With Scissors was marketed as a comedy, and supposedly the book is very funny. In all the supplements, everyone talks about the piece as being full of humor. But it's not. It's a dark film filled with people struggling just to survive. There are funny moments, but the laughter cannot overcome the darkness that surrounds the picture. And it's clear from interviews that the point of the movie is how you can overcome such darkness with laughter, so I don't think the movie succeeded on that level.
Where the film does succeed is in the performances. Everyone gives a very emotionally honest performance, with Annette Bening at the center of it all. Bening's performance is heartbreaking, because you can see her fall apart on screen. Alec Baldwin is also in rare form. When a young Augusten tells him that he wants to be famous and have everyone know him, the mix of emotions on Baldwin's face is palpable. The only performance I couldn't invest in was Brian Cox as Dr. Finch. Don't get me wrong, Cox is a brilliant actor, but outside of a few scenes, his portrayal of Dr. Finch is too aloof. Now, perhaps the real Dr. Finch was just as detached, but I couldn't tell if the character was written that way, or it was just an acting choice.
Ryan Murphy, who has shaped Nip/Tuck into one of the most intriguing shows on television, also seems to be floundering in his first feature. It's not that his direction is bad, but it feels like he was trying so hard to be a director with a capital "D" that he couldn't just let the story breathe. He does, however, know where and when to use his period songs, especially Elton John.
While the film may not entirely be a failure, it's certainly not a success. It is undoubtedly an interesting story, but something got lost in translation. However, as failures go, it's one of the more interesting ones.
The Blu-ray Disc:
Sony Pictures Home Entertainment presents Running With Scissors in a 1080p 2.40:1 MPEG-2 transfer. Running With Scissors is a generally drab affair, not prone to the full benefits of HD. However, there are some scenes, especially at the beginning, that shine. The scene where Dierdre first reads her poem for Augusten, you can really tell how almost everything in the room is yellow. Detail is quite good. You can make out every vein in Jill Clayburgh's face. Not the best I've ever seen, but still an all-around solid transfer.
Running With Scissors comes with an uncompressed PCM 5.1 track, but the film is mostly dialogue. The period music sounds great, but the rears get very little use throughout the movie. A regular Dolby Digital 5.1 and a French 5.1 Dolby Digital track is also included.
We get three short featurettes for the film, that probably could have been condensed into one. The first, "Inside Outsiders," talks about the casting of the film. Mostly the parts of Augusten, Neil, and Deirdre, to be honest. At eight minutes, it's not very in-depth. But then again, it is the longest featurette of the bunch.
The second, "A Personal Memoir," interviews the real Augusten Burroughs (who appears at the end of the film). Burroughs discusses the origins of the novel, and his great reluctance to option it as a film. It then interviews Ryan Murphy as he discusses working with Burroughs.
The final feature, "Creating The Cuckoo's Nest," focuses on the Finch house, which is full of all kinds of knick knacks and bizarre odds and ends. These are all the features from the standard definition DVD, so we aren't missing anything. On the other hand, we're not getting much, either.
Exclusive to the Blu-ray disc is a collection of previews for films such as All The King's Men and Marie Antoinette. All of them are in HD and all of them look great.
Running With Scissors is a film about dysfunctional people. As such, it's hard to watch. The uneven nature of the movie itself makes it that much harder. Still, some excellent performances and good picture merit at least one viewing. Rent It.
Daniel Hirshleifer is the High Definition Editor for DVD Talk.