'Running With Scissors' is the long-awaited film adaptation of the best-selling memoir by Augusten Burroughs, and it may just be the most dysfunctional family flick to ever hit mainstream cinema.
When we first meet the Burroughs clan, Augusten (Jack Kaeding) is six years-old, and in thrall to his deeply troubled mother Deirdre (Annette Bening), who masks a deep-set anger with artistic ambition. Hungry for respect and recognition, Deirdre drowns everyone around her in such a torrent of Freud-meets-Dr. Spock psycho-babble that it is no wonder that her husband Norman (alec Baldwin) has become an alcoholic.
Fast-forward about seven years, and Deirdre leaves Norman, and falls under the spell of the radical therapist Dr. Finch (Brian Cox). Lapsing into drug-induced stupors, psychotic episodes and a newfound lesbianism, Deirdre signs over custody of the now-13 year-old Augusten (Joseph Cross) to Dr. Finch.
Living in the Finch family's Sunset Boulevard'-esque mansion of incomparable dysfunction, Augustin will enter into a fling with older brother Bookman (Joseph Fiennes), will battle siblings Hope (Gwyneth Paltrow) and Natalie (Evan Rachel Wood), all the while struggling to find the strength to emerge, butterfly-like, into a normal life.
While 'Running with Scissors' often works wonders within a single scene, as a whole it just doesn't come together.
Director Ryan Murphy's line of visual and narrative reasoning appears to be "the weirder the better" -- and as the creator of the popular FX cabler 'Nip/Tuck,' he has obviously reaped the rewards of such thinking. In 'Scissors,' however, we're often left hanging -- what are we to make of Augusten's curiously neutered relationship with 35-year-old schizophrenic Bookman? Or of Bening's living-room poetry readings/rantings, which are so over art directed that they feel like self-contained pieces of performance art? In each of these matters (and others like them) the film never even offers a hint. Hardly cohesive to the rest of the film, the various elements feel like clips in a director's demo reel. Only an appearance by the real Augusten at the film's end and short "Look what happened to..." bios for each of the characters will at last provide some attempt at context.
To Murphy's credit, he does demonstrate an astute command of the various elements of mise-en-scene, using music and editing to strong visceral effect, throwing in just the right old tune to underscore the melodrama, and knowing exactly when to cut into the narrative in order to convey the passage of time.
But if no other reason, see 'Running with Scissors' for Annette Bening. Though cineastes have known since 'The Grifters' that she is a thespian force to be reckoned with, it wasn't until 'American Beauty' that the public (and the Academy) seemed to rank her in the master class with the Streeps, the Denches and the Mirrens. Though perhaps Deirdre is a bit too close to her turn in 'Beauty' for Oscar comfort, in many ways it is a more impressive performance. She is the only member of a formidable cast to completely break through Murphy's hard-sell artifice and find humanity in grotesque excess. In less capable hands, Deirdre would turn into a monster -- or worse, a campy sister to Mommie Dearest. But Bening is fearless, plunging headfirst into the character and engendering a certain warmth where you'd least expect it.
Following the whole James Frey-Oprah debacle, the media has turned its attention with a laser-like focus to other celebrated memoirists, and Augusten Burroughs too has come under fire for how fast and loose he played with the "facts" of his childhood. I have no idea how "accurate" the original book is, let alone the movie, but really -- since when can anyone's memories be trusted? There is no such thing as objective memory, only subjective fragmentation. What matters to me are the conclusions and universal truths an author or filmmaker is able to wring out of one persons story. Which is where 'Running with Scissors,' as a film, falls short.
Though I enjoyed parts of this fantastical, sometimes hellish trip, I wish more could have been illuminated for me beyond the obvious.
Initially, I found the video quality of 'Running with Scissors' tough to judge. The film is intentionally stylized to the extreme, with a subdued yet intense color palette. Plus, many of the sequences have a '70s-filtered thing going on, which gives the whole affair a somewhat soft glow. But Sony does its best with this 2.40:1 widescreen 1080p/MPEG-2 transfer, which accurately renders the movie's decidedly off-the-wall imagery.
In what may be a cinematic first, the dominant color of 'Running with Scissors' seems to be Fugly Brown with a bit of Tweety-Bird Yellow thrown in. Despite this, um, unique aesthetic choice, there are sporadic flashes of nice and vibrant hues, and the image never bleeds. Colors can be a bit overpumped for my taste, but hey, this is "art." Despite the use of the aforementioned soft filter effect, the presentation itself is very sharp. The widescreen photography offers a great sense of depth and detail to the "cuckoo's nest" of the Burroughs' household. Everything from wall hangings to clothing textures are noticeable and distinct. Fleshtones remain as accurate as possible, at least during the "normal," non-dreamy sequences. I also noticed no problems with compression artifacts, or excessive noise or film grain. 'Running with Scissors' may be as crazy as Anne Heche, but it's a good-looking crazy.
For a film that's almost wall-to-wall dialogue, 'Running with Scissors' is actually not a grating experience. Sony gives us another uncompressed PCM 5.1 surround track, which does the best it can with all the kooky-talk. Predictably, the surrounds are not consistently engaged, but there are a few zippy rear effects during the surreal/dream sequences. The period rock tunes (Elton John, Cat Stevens, etc.) are also surprisingly present in the mix, nicely filling up the soundstage. Dynamic range also surprised me, with fairly deep bass kicking in again during the songs, and a very wide, expansive upper range. Dialogue is well anchored in the mix and always prominent -- no volume boosting necessary here. Yes, 'Running with Scissors' is still a subdued film, but for this type of material, the soundtrack excels.
With three intriguingly-titled featurettes on the back of the box, I was hoping for pretty good things. Alas, the video material adds up to less than 18 minutes total -- not even comparable to one of those cheesy HBO "First Look" specials.
"Inside Outsiders" (8 minutes) is the usual bevy of on-set cast interviews, all whom rave about the authenticity of the characters. "A Personal Memoir by Augusten Burroughs" (5 minutes) is a skimpy chat with the celebrated (if now-embattled) author, who raves about the film's director, Ryan Murphy. Finally, "Creating the Cuckoo's Nest" (4 minutes) highlights production designer Richard Sherman, who expounds on how "the house is the character." All in all, too much raving here, not enough substance. And given the controversy that has more recently greeted Burroughs' recollection of the facts, the lack of any such discussion is something of a disappointment.
Fast proving themselves to be to Blu-ray as Universal is to HD DVD, Sony again provides no Theatrical Trailer here. These studios sure know how to cut into the hearts of us early adopters.
'Running with Scissors' is not the Oscar-ready film most expected. It sank without a trace at the box office this past Fall, and critics were not kind. Unfortunately, as much as I wanted to love it, I merely enjoyed it, as this is a film that never cuts deep enough below the surface to truly satisfy. However, Annette Bening is terrific as always, and she alone makes 'Running with Scissors' worth seeing. Sony has delivered a perfectly fine Blu-ray release for the film, as both the transfer and soundtrack deliver -- just don't expect much from the extras. Worth a rent for dysfunctional families and 'Nip/Tuck' fans.