Having thought this was some sort of offbeat comedy, Judge Dennis Prince began to threaten that he'd begin running with scissors if he was ever subjected to a miscreant misadventure like this again.
"I wanna be special and I wanna be famous."
Few would doubt the assertions of an adult that recount their childhood experiences, some as memories of joy and others as travails of torment. In fact, most adults can alternately describe both extremes with plenty of crossover in between. And though many adults are capable of reconciling the painful with the pleasurable, others continue to struggle over intense impositions that sometimes leave irreparable emotional scars. Such is the case of Running with Scissors, a personal memoir from Augusten Burroughs whose wildly successful 2002 book of the same name served as self-administered therapy, not to mention proving itself a financial windfall. And although Burroughs says he never intended for his post-pubescent odyssey to become a subject for the camera's eye, he eventually granted an option to first-time filmmaker Ryan Murphy, allowing his practically unbelievable accounts of abandonment, abuse, and outright pedophilia to be splashed unabashedly across the big screen.
"Where would we be without our painful childhood memories?"
Facts of the Case
By 1972, Deirdre Burroughs (Annette Bening, What Planet Are You From?) had convinced herself that it was her destiny to become a great writer and poet, and it was only the creative ineptitude of editors at The Virginian and The New Yorker magazines that stymied her public arrival. With the adoring approval of her 6-year-old son Augusten (Jack Kaeding), who attentively absorbs Mom's readings and alternately primps her hair, Deirdre needs only break free from the jealous oppressions of the outside world and her own hard-working but alcoholic husband, Norman (Alec Baldwin, The Departed), to free her true inner brilliance. It's true—just ask her.
Fast forward eight years and you'll find Augusten (now played by Joseph Cross) still rallies to his mother's side, but is growing suspicious of her rants seemingly brought on by her as yet unrewarded literary magnificence. Deirdre enlists the assistance of a new-age psychologist, Dr. Finch (Brian Cox, Red Eye), who recommends an immediate divorce from Norman and the surrender of Augusten into his own home-based live-in therapy. Despite Augusten's protests, the boy winds up a boarder at the unusual Finch home. The boy's painful journey begins, then, in the expansive hovel of a home that is a Jungian nightmare laid bare. Like a visitor to a tag sale run amok, Augusten finds himself stepping over, around, and through all manner of eclectic art and adornments (a push mower in the living room?) as he tries to quickly size up this Dr. Finch, in spite of his mother's total allegiance to the questionable clinician. He's somewhat befriended by the sarcastic Natalie (Evan Rachel Wood, Thirteen) and dour Hope (Gwyneth Paltrow, Infamous) upon his arrival. Haggard Agnes Finch (Jill Clayburgh, Fools Rush In) seems eager to impart some amount of maternal cohesiveness to the collective, yet isn't quite able to rise above the patriarchal rule of Dr. Finch. Oh, and, as a sort of outlet from the Finch craziness, Augusten finds himself in a physical relationship with another of Finch's patients, the schizophrenic Neil (Joseph Fiennes, Man to Man). All Augusten can do is wonder what he ever did to deserve such a fate a mere 14 years into his so-called life.
The opening statement in this case, "I wanna be special and I wanna be famous," seems to bear stronger testimony than perhaps the accuser had originally intended. Running with Scissors is in no way a flattering account; surely not for the accuser, Augusten Burroughs, and definitely not for the accused—his mother, his father, and the criminally culpable Dr. Finch. But the opening statement, uttered on screen by 6-year-old Augusten, is delivered as the somewhat sissified boy finds himself a mere pawn lost beneath the self-serving impetuousness of his mother and father. Arguably, his is a cry for help, for attention, and for someone or something external to provide him a needed sense of value and relevance. If not administered to, a young boy of this sort is apt to engage in all manner of behavioral maladies and skewed perceptions. Left to fester in such a dilemma, a young boy often develops attitudes and beliefs that might not always jibe with the realities around him. It becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy, then, that a young person struggling for validation and even recognition would make public his need for an audience; someone—anyone—to hear his pleas, sometimes dramatically embellished through the course of his personal plight.
Because the film is very personal by its nature, then so too must be my reaction to it. While I haven't read Burroughs' 2002 runaway bestseller memoir, and I haven't any reason to doubt his account of his outlandish childhood experiences, I'm struggling to find the objective truth amid all these purported travesties. That is, the film is very subjective—no surprise—but, as I reach to offer an untainted assessment of the "patient on the couch," I feel it necessary to consider the alternate truths that might be offered by the other actors in this very dark play. Without a doubt, Mom is certifiably narcissistic to such a gross extreme that it becomes comical—not in her behavior, but, rather, in the way she is so garishly painted throughout the narrative. Dad is an alcoholic father, but has so little involvement within the film that his participation seems a blur, an afterthought, or a consciously (or subconsciously) marginalized player; one that may have actually posed some sort of threat to a—dare I say it—jealous narrator? Ah, and there's the rub—are we to believe this vivid tale, captured by a then-14-year-old boy who was presumably needful of his mother's uninterrupted adoration while also undergoing the challenge of his admittedly irregular sexual identity? (I say "irregular" only in reference to the period of the 1970s when homosexuality was still considered "abnormal"—society's definition, not mine.) That being the situation, and my being certainly not privy to all attending details, how can I be certain that Running with Scissors is not a latter-day Mommie Dearest, with the embattled youngster again getting in the last word via published prose?
Of course, I could be entirely wrong in the preceding supposition, but still I can't be certain of anything from the sole perspective the narrative provides. Therefore, I cannot faithfully strike the potentially damning gavel until I've heard a proper cross-examination and have the testimony of those accused. That perspective, sadly, is not available for these particular deliberations.
Even though I struggle with the lack of supporting facts in regards to the proclaimed verity of the film's events, there is plenty of evidence that the performances on hand are not to be questioned. Annette Bening absolutely soars in this role, delivering a perfectly clinical and extreme portrayal of a woman who transfers all of her personal fear, doubt, and creative impotence onto the unwitting bystanders around her. She is an emotional vampire, sucking the life and livelihood out of those nearby in a classic attempt to redirect attention away from her own vapid existence. Her every self-centered proclamations are so overt that there's little mistake her job was to portray Deirdre Burroughs as cartoonishly caustic as possible. (Perhaps another sign of a struggling youth's affected interpretation?) Alec Baldwin does as much as he can with his limited role of Norman Burroughs, who is given barely any screen time, thereby raising the question of whether the father figure was truly wanted during the proceedings—especially when juxtaposed against the inevitable conflict that would arise when a young boy must explain his homosexuality to the dominant male of the household. Perhaps its easier to paint Dad as a deadbeat drunk and dismiss him rather than face that difficult encounter, huh? Brian Cox as Dr. Finch provides a truly demented demonstration of a psychologically sadistic Dr. Seuss-like eccentric who blatantly manipulates, mentally and monetarily, his captive family of patients. Cox delivers some absolutely outrageous lines with a straight face and manic enthusiasm. Here again, the character of Dr. Finch is yet another example of a character to be mistrusted and hated as seen through the eyes of a troubled young boy. And what of that young boy, played here by milky-skinned newcomer Joseph Cross? Well, he's remarkably mature looking for his supposed 14- and 15-year-old age; Cross was actually aged 19 and 20 when he made the film. He's certainly portrayed as precocious and seems to have a remarkable grip on his sexuality, easily proclaiming he's gay even though he's supposed to be of junior high age (perhaps the scariest age and social setting combination ever to beset a male adolescent, and one that wouldn't normally allow such nonchalance in "coming out"). This makes it difficult, unfortunately, to believe the narrative in that regard, and also believe that such a silky smooth young boy could be attracted to the bear-like 35-year-old troll Neil Bookman. To my eyes, as good as Cross is in his role (and he is good, make no mistake about that), he's just not believable in this particular situation. Joseph Fiennes does well portraying the unstable Neil, and steps up to the challenge of playing a somewhat sensitive sexual predator (assuming there is such a thing). But his physical appearance and potentially overbearing stature make it difficult to believe that a waif of a young man could engage in such a relationship—though Augusten is desperate, and perhaps that's where the believability ekes in. Again, I cannot speak from direct experience here, but can only relate to the classmates I encountered when I was of the same age as Augusten. The female co-stars, Evan Rachel Wood and Gwyneth Paltrow, both exist as credible cases of emotional embattlement, yet neither has much room to work in the confined course of events. Jill Clayburgh, however, is able to claw her way out of the human flotsam to deliver a truly touching performance of a kindred spirit of sorts, one who identifies with Augusten's angst and provides unexpected assistance when he needs it most.
If you're still unclear regarding whether I found the film to be enjoyable or not, welcome to my world—I'm still uncertain myself. Turning to the technical merits of this new Blu-ray disc, though, I'm sorry to say that it is in need of a bit of assistance too, not being able to express itself to its fullest potential. Specifically, the 1080p / MPEG-2 transfer here is clean (supported by a near-spotless source print), but it lacks the level of crispness and sharp detail that we expect from the format—capabilities previously proven by better adjusted releases that have gone before and since. There is an inherent softness of the image that, while it never nullifies the viewing experience, leaves us wanting more. The color palette is muted and suppressed, which is the clear intent of the original production design; it never pops or gives that element of dimensionality that enthusiasts crave. The audio is offered in a PCM 5.1 Uncompressed Surround mix, but, again, it fails to provide input from multiple perspectives. That is, the surrounds get very little involvement here, and the majority of the audio content comes uni-directionally from the front. The dialog is clear and intelligible, but it's definitely presented as a one-way conversation. Extras include a few featurettes, each running 10 minutes or less; none provide any deeper insight into the interesting world of Augusten Burroughs. To that point, a running commentary that might have featured Burroughs and Director Murphy seem requisite for a production of this sort, and likely could have provided the noticeably missing insight into the deeper layers of Burroughs' personal drama, but no such commentary is present.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Perhaps Running with Scissors is a cathartic exercise intended to cleanse Augusten of his adolescent anxieties. As presented, it certainly achieves that purpose, with nothing held back and no topics deemed forbidden from discussion. Still, it tends to raise more questions than it provides answers, and, from my brief research, I understand the film does pale justice to the original book. Therefore, I'll need to give that a look before I could ever expect to pass any sort of judgment on Burroughs or this film. As a "child star" of the Seventies myself, I'm always eager to hear of others' experiences beyond my own cul-de-sac and homeroom class.
Running with Scissors is certainly a drama to take note of, though it's not so much of a comedy as the ad campaign would have you believe. It's a dark and often disturbed voyage into the fantastic events endured by a young boy, offered as a testament of his trials and tribulations to anyone who'll stop to take notice. Once you're caught in its tale, it's definitely difficult to look away, like a car wreck of emotional carnage. You'll need to ask yourself, however, if what you see is the full truth. On that, I cannot judge until more evidence is offered.
This court declares a mistrial in the case of Running with Scissors for reason of inconclusive evidence.
Give us your feedback!
Scales of Justice
• Featurette: Inside Outsiders
Review content copyright © 2007 Dennis Prince; Site design and review layout copyright © 2014 Verdict Partners LLC. All rights reserved.