© 2006 Ray Wong
Adapting a memoir is always a tricky thing, because inherently it's easy to lose the author's original voice, which is usually what makes the memoir work, in addition to the fascinating life stories. In Ryan Murphy's Running with Scissors, adapted from Augusten Burroughs's best-selling memoir, the task is doubly tricky because of the materials: psychosis, drug use, homosexuality, pedophilia, among other things.
Augusten (Cross, as the teenager and Jack Kaeding as the six-year-old) is a sensitive child of an alcoholic father, Norman (Baldwin), and narcissistic mother, Deirdre (Bening). Deirdre dreams of being a famous writer, and she feels her life is being suffocated by her husband. After his parents split and his father walks out, Augusten's whole life hinges on Deirdre's swinging moods.
Deirdre starts to see Dr. Finch (Cox), a psychiatrist, regularly. The quirky doctor convinces Deirdre to live her own life, so she lets him adopt Augusten. Upset and detached at first, Augusten soon learns to take in his new bizarre family. He has a special bond with Finch's youngest daughter, Natalie (Wood), a misfit who dreams of going to college one day. Finch's eldest and "most favorite" daughter, Hope (Paltrow), is emotionally detached. Finch's wife, Agnes (Clayburgh), is clinically depressed. Then there is Finch's adopted son, Bookman (Fiennes), a gay schizophrenic who later carries on an open love affair with 14-year-old Augusten. As Deirdre's condition worsens, Augusten must finds his place in the world on his own while navigating through the mayhem in the Finch household.
Bening (Being Julia) has a knack for playing neurotic, severely-flawed women. Granted, a number of today's top actresses could have played Deirdre (Julianne Moore was one of the names tapped to play the role), Bening has made it her own. In addition to hysterics, Bening also underplays the role with subdued, possibly drug-induced detachment. The performance is certainly Oscar-baiting but I do think she deserves at least an nomination. Cross (Flags of Our Fathers) is not bad as Augusten, the hurt, confused, sensitive young protagonist, except that for those who have read the book, his portrayal has lost the edgy, rebellious barb of the real Augusten's angst. Cross's Augusten seems neutered.
Cox (Red Eye) is a prolific old pro, and with great skills he plays the shrink who may not at all be all he cracks up to be. It seems like lately we can't see enough of the actor, and he's not in any danger of overexposure. His character goes from stately authority to zany rambling without even a blink of an eye. Wood (The Upside of Anger) is fine as the rebellious, potty-mouth Natalie. She has a great rapport with Cross. Unfortunately, her character seems to be very sketchy in the film. Paltrow (Infamous) has a relatively small part in the film, and she channels the same character from The Royal Tenenbaums.
Fiennes (The Darwin Award) plays it safe with his portrayal of an unstable gay man in the 70s and, in the process, somehow loses the creepiness -- he is, after all, a pedophile. Baldwin (The Department) has a nice understated role as Norman, whose unhappiness with his familial situation is both sympathetic and pathetic. The standout is Clayburgh (Nip/Tuck) as Agnes, Dr. Finch's neglected, clinically depressed wife-slash-maid -- she's heartbreaking to watch.
Writer-director Murphy (Nip/Tuck) pieces the events in Burroughs's memoir adequately. In this script, the focus has shifted from Augusten and the Finches to Deirdre. On its own, it's not a bad move because Deirdre is like a train wreck, fascinating to watch. But in the process, Murphy has tremendously changed the tone of the story. Burroughs's book is very entertaining because of his sharp wit, dry humor, and intense observation and introspection. The film version is way too serious, with way too little humor to sustain the soap-operatic, episodic plot. It's surprising, given Murphy's penchant for oddball characters, bizarre situations, and wicked humor. The film simply drags, and without humor, these characters just come across as either dull or unsympathetic.
Murphy does preserve the intricate relationships between these characters and try to make us care about them. Certainly, he has the skills, and the editing is crisp. Unfortunately, he misses the mark on so many things. Losing Burroughs's unique, sharp voice is a big one. Using canned 70s music is another. He also fails to recreate that late 70s mood -- I just didn't feel like I was watching a story set in that time, despite the clothes and cars and set. There are so real, deep emotions, but at the end, the film feels dull, tedious, and depressing, losing the zany luster of the original material. There is nothing sharp about this pair of scissors -- it just doesn't cut it.
Stars: Annette Bening, Brian Cox, Joseph Fiennes, Evan Rachel Wood, Alec Baldwin, Joseph Cross, Jill Clayburgh, Gwyneth Paltrow
Director: Ryan Murphy
Writers: Ryan Murphy (based on Augusten Burroughs's memoir)
MPAA Rating: R fro strong language, sexuality, violence and substance abuse
Running Time: 116 minutes
Script – 6
Performance – 8
Direction – 6
Cinematography – 7
Editing – 7
Production – 7
Total – 6.5 out of 10