Running with Scissors (United States, 2006)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

Running with Scissors is not a pleasant movie. The problem isn't that it's a downer, although it is, but that it's a tiresome trek into familiar territory populated by one-dimensional stereotypes. Perhaps calculating that more is better, Running with Scissors features not one but two dysfunctional families (in movies, there is no room for the so-called "normal" family). Nearly every supporting character with a speaking part is either an oddball or a freak. Had David Lynch been at the helm, the movie might have been weird enough to be entertaining, but director Ryan Murphy's approach is so stagnant that the picture has overstayed its welcome before the running length is half over.

The main character is Augusten Burroughs (Joseph Cross), a fourteen-year old surviving the disintegration of his parents' marriage in 1978. (Those who forget the year will be reminded by the use of pop songs of the era - many inappropriately placed - on the soundtrack.) Dierdre and Norman Burroughs (Annette Bening and Alec Baldwin) are in the midst of a marital meltdown that would make the real life actor's split appear amicable. Eventually, the alcoholic Norman moves out and Dierdre, whose mental health is not the best, takes some time off to "rest at a motel." Augusten ends up in residence at the house of Dierdre's psychiatrist, Dr. Finch (Brian Cox).

The Finch family is not normal. They do not believe in doing dishes - there's not a surface in the kitchen that isn't piled high with dirty flatware The long dead Christmas tree is in its second consecutive year of needle-dropping existence. Then there are the inhabitants… Dr. Finch is a narcissist who thinks of himself as Santa Claus, sleeps with his patients, has a room next to his office reserved for masturbation, and divines the future from the shape of his stool. His wife, Agnes (Jill Clayburgh), doesn't look like she ever leaves the house and admits that her favorite snack foods are dog kibbles. Son Neil (Joseph Fiennes) has moved out but still visits either for therapy or to kill his father - he sometimes has trouble figuring out which. Elder daughter Hope (Gwyneth Paltrow) talks to her cat and uses randomly chosen Biblical words to guide her life. Younger daughter Natalie (Evan Rachel Wood) is the most normal, so she and Augusten bond. Their relationship might go farther except Augusten is gay.

Family dramas featuring an array of offbeat characters can succeed by selecting one of two paths. They can offer serious drama by investing the time and energy to develop complex characters or they can opt to traverse a more comedic path, incorporating wit and humor (consider The Royal Tenenbaums). Running with Scissors does neither. With the exception of Augusten, Natalie, and arguably Dierdre, the population is paper-thin. On the other hand, the comedy is so low-key as to be absent. The few obvious attempts at jokes aren't funny, especially considering the grim tone.

The best performance belongs to Evan Rachel Wood, who brings enough spunk and energy to Natalie to relieve the tedium when she's around. Annette Bening is being touted in some circles as a potential Oscar contender for her portrayal of the unbalanced poet Dierdre. However, while there's nothing wrong with Bening's acting, it's not award-worthy. Brian Cox has his enjoyable moments, vacillating between an affable grandfather figure and a manipulative Svengali. Unfortunately, lead actor Joseph Cross is flat, making it difficult to connect emotionally with Augusten. The other actors - Jill Clayburgh, Alec Baldwin, Gwyneth Paltrow, and Joseph Fiennes - leave a minimal impression.

Running with Scissors is based on the well received memoir written by Augusten Burroughs, but something must have gotten lost in the translation. For Ryan Murphy, who is making his feature debut after creating the popular TV series Nip/Tuck, it's not a promising first big-screen outing. Visually, the movie is interesting (with the Finch house, both inside and outside, representing what happens when no one cleans up anything), but the storyline varies between being derivative (insane mother torn between ignoring her son and loving him) and artificial (a few too many unbelievable characters tossed awkwardly into the mix - isn't anyone in this movie normal?). As dysfunctional family movies go, this is one skip. It doesn't just run with the scissors, it falls on them.

Running with Scissors (United States, 2006)

Run Time: 2:00
U.S. Release Date: 2006-10-20
MPAA Rating: "R" (Profanity, Drugs, Sexual Situations)
Genre: DRAMA
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1