This is a revised version of the 700-word I wrote for Reviewing the Arts, and the only movie review I did for the class (I might gone a word or two over in my revision, but hey, it's a blog. More importantly, it's better). I read Burroughs' memoir almost two years ago, and I was completely engrossed, transfixed enough to stay focused as I read it on a Greyhound bus to and from New York City. But that's another story. That experience, unfortunately, set me up for big-time disappointment with the movie.
Augusten Burroughs broke into the literary mainstream with his 2003 memoir "Running with Scissors." The book’s appeal was its sheer strangeness: bizarre parenting practices, under-age love affairs, scatology as science and religion. Burroughs’ acerbic commentary on these unsettling stories continually reinforced the truth in his accounts, no matter how unbelievable.
From the outset, director Ryan Murphy’s cinematic adapation of "Running with Scissors," released October 27, lacks that biting character. The choice of music for the movie’s closing credits – Crosby, Stills and Nash’s "Teach Your Children" – has more of a sarcastic edge than much of Murphy’s adapted screenplay. The hardened, jabbing voice of Burrough’s book is undercut from the very beginning, when Joseph Cross, the young actor who plays Burroughs as a teenager and narrates the story, says "Nobody’s gonna believe me anyway."
The emotional thrust of the movie – the damage that parents unwittingly do to their children – comes from the dynamics and dissolution of two marriages. Deirdre and Norman Burroughs (Annette Bening and Alec Baldwin) booze and bicker rather than tend to their fussy, obsessive-compulsive son Augusten, while Marion and Agnes Finch (Brian Cox and Jill Clayburgh) throw up their hands at the tumult and tantrums of their two daughters and brood of adopted children. Marion, a psychiatrist, follows an unorthodox philosophy that a child becomes an adult at 13 and should be beholden to no adult’s orders thereafter. After Deirdre enters treatment under Dr. Finch and stumbles into an antidepressant-induced haze, she signs over custody of Augusten to the mellow, messianic doctor.
In the book, the reader is jolted by a barrage of oddities, but Murphy shies away from the stories’ jaw-droppingly unbelievable moments. As Dr. Finch, Cox is just too normal. His laissez-faire parenting seems merely neglectful rather than criminally insane, and his belief in divine messages shown through his bathroom leavings comes so late in the movie as to seem misplaced.
Murphy doesn’t play up young Augusten’s quirks enough, either. His childhood neuroses don’t go much beyond fascination with shiny objects, manifested by boiling and polishing his allowance money and wrapping the dog in tin foil. In the book, he obsessively shampoos and gels his hair and demands to give his mom a perm. This gender-inappropriate behavior, along with his refusal to go to school, is supposed to drive a wedge between his parents, but the gulf is already there between Norman and Deirdre at the film’s start. Murphy’s adaptation doesn’t give them time to develop or to drift apart.
The Finch children also barely register: the nutty, devoutly religious Hope (Gwyneth Paltrow), foul-mouthed misfit Natalie (Evan Rachel Wood) and the angry, schizophrenic adoptee Neil Bookman (Joseph Fiennes). Bookman generates the most interest as he angrily throws the Doctor’s bland paternalism back at him, but he becomes sedate and much less interesting after he and Augusten start a relationship.
Though Augusten's neuroses seem underdeveloped (and thus even more out of place in the Finch household), Cross’ performance brings out the young man's shock and disbelief. When Cross glances into Dr. Finch’s toilet bowl or outside to see that his mother has spread all the dishes and kitchen appliances on the lawn, the camera lingers on his wide eyes and slightly-agape mouth. He appears genuinely disturbed, while everyone around him seems merely dazed.
The final and most disappointing departure from the book is how serene the supposedly-nuts Finch household seems. The Finch house in the movie is cluttered, but there are no objects being hurled, no needles falling from the two-year-old, dilapidated Christmas tree. Actual moments of peace and reflection become possible: Augusten can sit and have a conversation with Natalie at the breakfast table, or watch TV in silence with Agnes. These elements of normal family life seem out of place in what is supposed to be a bizarre, utterly backward household.
Ultimately, the movie seems more informed by "Garden State," another film that chronicles the dissolution of the "American family," than by Burrough’s madcap memoir. Murphy even borrows a scene of "primal scream" therapy from Zach Braff’s film. Unfortunately, instead of merely screaming into the abyss like the disaffected twenty-somethings in that movie, "Running With Scissors" throws all the energy and honesty of Burroughs’ book into the hole.