In trying to flatten Augusten Borroughs’s memoir for the big screen, writer/director Ryan Murphy has let the air out of the whole crazy, kooky package. What’s left is a lethargic, fractured look at a life inside a suburban insane asylum.
Augusten (Joseph Cross) is suffering though the divorce of his parents, brought on by his bipolar mother Deirdre (Annette Bening) and her frightening mental instability. Dierdre’s manic behavior is alleviated by Dr. Finch (an appropriately slippery Brian Cox), a soothing presence, but a shady doctor who takes Deirdre under his wing and overmedicates her to a point of catatonia. Soon Deirdre is unable to care for Augusten, and allows Dr. Finch to adopt him. Finch brings the disbelieving teen into his filthy household where he meets his new family (Gwyneth Paltrow, Jill Clayburgh and strong work from Evan Rachel Wood) and immediately starts to pray for an end to this nightmare.
“Running with Scissors” is the cinematic attempt to wrestle Augusten Burroughs’s 1970s flavored “memoir” to the ground and create a sensible film out of its contents. It’s a caustic, inflammatory book pocked with humor and a general awe of the psychologically unstable; the movie is a wandering creation, unable to settle on a tone, and fleshed out by a director in a hurry to pack Augusten’s entire journey into two hours.
Ryan Murphy, the creator of the FX series “Nip/Tuck” (better known as the “Passions” of basic cable), picks up the writing and directing duties on “Scissors,” but appears unprepared for the job. Admittedly, Augusten’s life story would be almost impossible to cut corners on without unraveling the whole vomitorium idea of the book, but it seems Murphy doesn’t care that his storytelling borders on trainwreck status.
Murphy is adrift at sea in “Scissors,” dashing from moment to moment to hit the more sensational high points of Augusten’s life, but he fails to put these sequences together in a rolling, measured fashion. “Scissors” constantly rambles and sputters, much like a patient of Dr. Finch, but Murphy isn’t sharp enough to use that as an excuse for the chunks of information missing, or to cover some of the more screamy, showboat performances (Ms. Bening, I’m looking your way). Murphy hopes to compact the entire memoir into his adaptation, but loses his way immediately. Instead, he ends up with a severely spastic, detached picture that has no beginning or end, just a bunch of random acts of lunacy and personal growth floating by without a reason to care about them.
While the source material is Augusten’s memoir, Murphy doesn’t start following the young man for quite some time, setting up “Scissors” initially as a tale of a broken family. The first 45 minutes itemize Deirdre’s swirling, poet-fueled depression and the dissolution of her marriage (Alec Baldwin plays her husband). When Augusten’s story finally crashes down on the film, the break is jarring and unwanted. Suddenly the culture of insanity and the pill-popping good times are halted so we can watch Augusten get a hold of his homosexuality with another of Dr. Finch’s patients (an unrecognizable Joseph Fiennes). A better director could’ve eased this transition, but Murphy hits the switch with a sledgehammer, breaking up his movie into several little parts that fail to yield dramatic weight due to their inconsistency and lack of details.
The one subplot “Scissors” lacks is the impetus of Augusten’s writing habits. Murphy has fun with Dierdre’s poetry aspirations, and the film is narrated by Augusten’s diary entries, yet nothing is communicated about why the young man wants so dearly to express himself on the page. Murphy actually gives more screentime to Augusten’s hair dressing aspirations, making the last-minute swerve to literary desires even more dizzying.
“Running with Scissors” is as fractured and unsure as its characters, and no amount of familial insanity or “K-Billy’s Super Sounds of the Seventies” soundtrack indulgences can mask the film’s inability to tell a coherent story.Rating: D+