Running with Scissors Review: Great Performances, Nothing More

October 30, 2006

Based on the best-selling memoirs of writer Augusten Burroughs, Running with Scissors puts Joseph Cross in Burroughs's shoes from the age of 14. Part comedy and part drama, Scissors explores Augusten's bizarre life as his mother descends into madness and leaves him with her psychiatrist's family. Although Running with Scissors has quite a few laugh out loud moments, it fails to maintain that great level of comedy and often becomes a rather serious drama, switching back and forth without smooth transitions. Despite a fantastic cast and great soundtrack, director and screenwriter Ryan Murphy ("Nip/Tuck") doesn't make this a very compelling film.

Augusten Burroughs (Cross) and his "emotionally charged" mother Deirdre (Annette Bening) have a good relationship, though it becomes increasingly obvious that she has some very serious mental problems. Set in the 1970s, Scissors puts us in the mind of Augusten from the age of 14 as he discovers a great deal about himself, including his own homosexuality. Deirdre begins seeing a psychiatrist named Dr. Finch (Brian Cox) who soon recommends that Augusten live with him and his family while she receives treatment from him. Never one to take school seriously, Augusten instead becomes immersed in Dr. Finch's family of variously psychotic individuals, and he is eventually legally adopted.

Running with Scissors is an open exploration of Augusten's family and Dr. Finch's family as written in Augusten's memoirs of the same title. The actors' performances, the soundtrack, and the comedic moments are all excellent, but Murphy does not tell a complete story well. There is too much comedy for it to be a drama, and too much seriousness for it to be a comedy. The film jumps awkwardly between both paths and Murphy can't decide whether he wants a pure comedy or a tragic drama. If you want one, you won't get the other.

Among the better parts of Running with Scissors were the shining performances from Annette Bening as an increasingly disconnected psychotic, Joseph Cross's breakout performance as the gay Augusten, and Brian Cox as the often-as-crazed-as-his-patients psychiatrist. Cross's charismatic performance carries the film, being one of the most admirable performances I've seen in quite a while. In addition, the always-great Brian Cox (X-Men 2, Bourne Identity) builds all of the best comedic moments; I haven't laughed this much at intelligent off-kilter jokes since Little Miss Sunshine. There are a few times you end up laughing when Augusten is crying, but only for the enjoyment of the scene at hand. Neil Bookman (Joseph Fiennes), the 33-year-old adopted son of Dr. Finch, helps Augusten discover his homosexuality in a torrid pederastic affair that was the backbone of Burroughs's memoir. In the film, though, Bookman is not as central a character and the film suffers as a result.

The great soundtrack in Running with Scissors captures some of the most memorable moments in the film. Manfred Mann's "Blinded By The Light" is the wonderful accompaniment to a great scene showing Deirdre's degrading mind. Other wonderful scenes are surrounded by such '70s classics as "Bennie and the Jets" by Elton John and "Pick Up The Pieces" by Average White Band. It's the rather distracting jolts between the various genres and storytelling that takes away from whatever momentum Running with Scissors had going.

Last Word:
There are a number of great performances and satisfying musical accompaniments in Running with Scissors, but overall it's not a completely show-stopping story. The entertainment value is slightly there, with some great comedy even comparable to Little Miss Sunshine, but beyond that it becomes a more dramatic story that loses its vigor. Even then director Ryan Murphy can't decide whether to keep it on its comedy or its dramatic path, and ends up creating a jolting experience that great performances can't fix.

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