One of the claims that Augusten Burroughs makes in his writings
is that whenever anyone starts to complain about their unhappy
childhood, he is always able to top it. And as outlined in his "memoir"
RUNNING WITH SCISSORS that certainly is the case. But like James
Frey, he has been challenged over the veracity of his stories (although
not in as public a forum as Frey since Oprah Winfrey hasn't yet selected
any of Burroughs' works for her book club). I'll certainly admit that I
enjoyed reading Burroughs' books and articles (some of his work has
appeared on Salon as well as in other venues).
But I do have to admit that reading his memoirs, I began
to wonder just how much actually happened and how much was an
exaggerated version of the truth. Certainly Burroughs (who was born
Christopher Robison; he legally changed his name as an adult) clearly
has a vivid imagination. By his own admission in DRY, he had problems
with alcohol abuse. His mother, a minor poet, has been giving
interviews but she refuses to address questions of Burroughs' youth.
(She did offer this intriguing exchange to National Public Radio:
"I know a little bit about Augusten Burroughs. I met him in San
Francisco. When Chris called me and asked me to come. And he was
lost, he said. I met Augusten Burroughs there. But Augusten Burroughs
and Chris are not quite the same.") The family of the doctor portrayed
as the Finchs in both the book and the movie have filed lawsuits
claiming that the author that they were inaccurately portrayed.
and they reached an undisclosed settlement with Sony Pictures, the
film's distributor, in mid-October 2006. The consensus seems to be
that Burroughs is a good storyteller -- the veracity of his tales, however,
remains somewhat mysterious.
I will grant you that Burroughs is an engaging writer with a very
distinct narrative voice, and that voice and it's sarcastic tone are
what's primarily missing from the film version, written and directed by
Ryan Murphy. Murphy, who has worked on the cult television series
POPULAR and the more successful cable series NIP/TUCK, makes a
strong attempt, but he doesn't seem to have found the key to adapting
the book for the screen. There's a half-hearted attempt to capture
Burroughs' voice through narration, but that aspect of the film is soon
dropped. What the audience is left with are a bunch of not terribly
Annette Bening has been cast in the role of Augusten's mother,
a bipolar wannabe writer who dreams of publishing success. One set
piece is given over to her performing one of her poems that she
expects THE NEW YORKER to accept. Others show her in various
states of mania. Bening's performance has been lauded by some
critics, but to my eyes it is like a "greatest hits" version of her previous
work, a dash of the cartoonish wife she essayed in the execrable
AMERICAN BEAUTY, a dollop of her self-absorbed, aging actress from
BEING JULIA, a dash of the venom she supplied to Merteuil in
VALMONT, and so on. Frankly, as the character is written, I'm not
sure any actress could have done much with the role.
Alec Baldwin has a few nice moments as Burroughs' father,
a workaholic and alcoholic who battles with his wife's mental illness
and fears it may have been passed on to his son. (He has a very
touching, if cruel, scene where he tells the young boy, "I don't see
anything of myself in you.")
Bening's Deirdre is being treated by a very unorthodox
psychiatrist, Dr. Finch (a somewhat miscast Brian Cox), to whom
she eventually turns over custody of her son. The Finch family defines
both dysfunctional and eccentric. Mom Agnes (Jill Clayburgh) snacks
on dry dog food straight from the bag. Prissy older sister Hope
(Gwyneth Paltrow) hears her cat speaking to her and later concocts
a rather distasteful stew. Younger sister Natalie (Evan Rachel Wood)
has her own issues: she was abandoned by an older lover, aspires
to attend college, and, despite the madness surrounding her, longs for
normalcy. She and Augusten (Joseph Cross) form a bond.
But Augusten actually relates best to a thirtysomething
schizophrenic whom Dr. Finch had also adopted, Neil Bookman (Joseph
Fiennes). Neil is gay and serves as Augusten's first lover. (The book
and movie more or less gloss over the age difference and the fact
that Bookman is essentially a rapist and an ephebophile.)
Murphy's direction is scattershot, given the episodic nature
of the material, with some sequences coming off as almost cartoonlike,
while there is an occasional moment (particularly a beautiful goodbye
scene between Clayburgh and Cross near the end of the film) that soars.
When I went into the screening of RUNNING WITH SCISSORS, I
wasn't exactly sure what to expect. I had hoped, I guess, that the
film would do justice to the book, but sadly that is not the case.
If I were you, go out and spend the money on the paperback, curl
up and give yourself over to the wacky world Burroughs' creates. It'll
be more fulfilling than watching the movie.
Rating: C -
MPAA Rating: R for strong language and elements of
sexuality, violence and substance abuse
Running time: 116 mins.
Viewed at the Dolby Screening Room
|Running with Scissors
|© 2006 by C. E. Murphy. All Rights Reserved.