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Running with Scissors(2006)
Based on the personal memoirs of Augusten Burroughs, Running with Scissors is a wickedly funny, brave and moving tale of surviving a most unusual childhood. Augusten's (Joseph Cross) mother (Annette Bening) is a deluded aspiring post with bipolar disorder whose marriage to his dad (Alec Baldwin) is in ruins. Soon, she is seeing a very eccentric therapist named Dr. Finch (Brian Cox), while Augusten is left in the care of Finch's wackly family, including his tightly-wound daughter (Gwyneth Paltrow). Abandoned by his parents and adopted by the Finches, he finds a kindred spirit in youngest daughter Natalie (Even Rachel Wood) and motherly support from Finch's long suffering wife Agnes (Jill Clayburgh). Constantly recording the events of his life in his journals as a way to cope, Augusten finds himself avoiding school, learning about love from an older man (Joseph Fiennes), and making big decisions at the tender age of fifteen.
For more about Running with Scissors and the Running with Scissors Blu-ray release, see Running with Scissors Blu-ray Review published by Casey Broadwater on July 7, 2009 where this Blu-ray release scored 3.0 out of 5.
Director: Ryan Murphy
Writer: Ryan Murphy
Starring: Annette Bening, Brian Cox, Joseph Fiennes, Evan Rachel Wood, Alec Baldwin, Joseph Cross
» See full cast & crew
Running with Scissors Blu-ray Review
“It doesn’t matter where I begin, because nobody’s going to believe me anyway.”
Reviewed by Casey Broadwater, July 7, 2009
Memoirists have garnered a shaky reputation lately, and between James Frey's Oprah debacle and Augusten Burrough's exaggeration allegations, readers and critics alike have grown wary of autobiographies that seem too good—or weird—to be true. And if there's one memoir that sets out to prove that truth is indeed stranger than fiction, it's Burrough's Running with Scissors, a darkly comic coming-of-age story that details the author's nascent sexuality, mommy issues, and his drama-filled stint with a bizarre and emotionally unhealthy adoptive family. Unfortunately, director and Nip/Tuck creator Ryan Murphy's screen adaptation never really gels, as the solid performances—Annette Bening's in particular—are set adrift in a wishy-washy sea of thematic uncertainty.
In most important respects, the film follows the book fairly closely, though it does make a few divergences from the real-life "plot." Set during the mid to late 1970's, the story concerns the rearing (or lack thereof) of Augusten Burroughs (Joseph Cross), a tidy and fastidious teen whose carefully constructed world is dismantled following his parents' divorce. His mother Deirdre, played with bi-polar bravura by Annette Bening, is a self-deluded poetess who continually marginalizes her son in desperate bids for 15 fleeting minutes of fame. The rejection slips pile up, and Deidre consults loony psychiatrist Dr. Finch (Brian Cox), a post-Freudian wacko who has his own "masterbatorium" and lives in a disheveled Victorian mansion that would put Miss Havisham's decrepit manor to shame. Dr. Finch tells Deidre that she's suffering from creative constipation, puts her on brain-numbing meds—the better to rape her with, though this is only implied in the film—and convinces her to let Augusten live with his extended family of assorted nut-jobs. Believing that children become adults at the age of thirteen and are no longer subject to parental authority, Dr. Finch lets his kids do as they please, and no one is shocked or disapproving when the young Augusten develops a sexual relationship with Neil Bookman (Joseph Fiennes), a 35 year old schizophrenic man.
It's a story that beggars belief. If Burroughs did indeed live through this hell and come out with his sense of self intact, the man deserves a medal, or at least a big hug from a father figure. The patent insanity of it all doesn't really help the film though, as the crazier moments eclipse the themes of identity, perseverance, and familial alienation. When I finished watching Running with Scissors, instead of reflecting on Augusten's journey or imbibing the loss-of-innocence vibe, I was left feeling that the film is just a slightly more realistic, but infinitely less stylish and loveable version of The Royal Tenenbaums. Just substitute Brian Cox for Bill Murray. The kooky characters run off in divergent directions like wayward sheep, and director Ryan Murphy can't seem to rein them in or keep them in line. There's simply too much going on—Deirdre has a lesbian relationship, the IRS closes in on Dr. Finch, and there's even an attempted murder subplot that was never present in the book. While all these elements can work in the broader scope of the written memoir, the film often seems overindulgent and unfocused.
It's unfortunate, because so much of the acting is brilliant and uninhibited. The film lives in a moral grey expanse, giving equal sympathy to all characters—even the most undeserving—and the actors revel in their wild, unpredictable parts. Relative newcomer Joseph Cross (Milk) is in the eye of this teenage hurricane, and his Augusten is the film's anchor of normalcy. We see the events unfold from his perspective and his confusion and angst are paining. Who's there to tell this kid it's not all right to be taken advantage of by an insane, middle-aged man? Joseph Fiennes shows bravery in taking on the role of Neil Bookman, and he resists the urge to play him as a one-note pervert. Brian Cox is his usual calculated and theatrical self, giving Dr. Finch a persona that's one part Freud to two parts deranged cult leader. Even Alec Baldwin shows some heft as Augusten's bewildered and emotionally vacant dad, telling his son, "I really don't see myself in you at all." The only wasted role is Gwyneth Paltrow as Dr. Finch's eldest daughter Hope. Miscast and underused, the character would be a better fit on the bigamist compound of HBO's Big Love.
Of course, Annette Bening steals the show. She takes Deirdre from heights of masked confidence —leading her poetry group, say—to desperate, drugged-out lows. She's the epitome of every person who desperately wants fame, but will never have the luck or talent to achieve it. When she finds Augusten's diary and tells him not to compete with her—she doesn't wanted him to live in her shadow—we see through the motherly guise and into her sneaking awareness that she'll never be successful. It's a devastating and beautifully realized role, but even Bening's performance can't keep Running with Scissors from tripping up on plot points and stabbing itself with its own comic cleverness.
Running with Scissors Blu-ray, Video Quality
Running with Scissors stumbles onto Blu-ray with a sufficient but rarely impressive 1080p, MPEG-2 transfer that gives average performance in just about every category. Clarity is middling; close-ups pop with crisp definition, but medium shots languor in occasional fuzziness. Colors are so- so; the film is best at its brightest, with strong reds—like Mrs. Finch's cardigan—and bold yellows, while other tones recede into the gloom of the doctor's overstuffed mansion. The film's biggest issue is shadow delineation, as details are frequently painted over by deep blacks that may or may not be intentional. There's a persistent field of grain hovering over the film—not overpowering but definitely noticeable—and despite the strong black levels, I never really got a keen sense of depth from the image. Transfer troubles like artifacts and banding are largely and thankfully absent, but I did notice some strong contrast wavering, particularly when Dr. Finch hands Deirdre a Valium pill and when Augusten is riding the bus. It can't keep up with Blu-ray's best, but Running with Scissors certainly isn't the slowest kid in the home video class.
Running with Scissors Blu-ray, Audio Quality
Joseph Cross' front and center, dynamically flat opening narration sets the tone for Running with Scissors' lossless PCM 5.1 track. Like the video quality, the film's audio is merely adequate, with a sometimes-thin, bass-less sound and an almost entirely front-heavy presentation. The rear channels are quiet and underused throughout the film, only coming out of hibernation for a few discrete effects and during the 1970's piano pop that peppers the score. As a distinctly chatty film, voice prioritization is key, and apart from the aforementioned thinness of the narration, dialogue comes through fully without getting lost in the minimal ambience. There's really not a lot to say about this track, aside from the fact that it does its job, but without any real gusto.
Running with Scissors Blu-ray, Special Features and Extras
Inside Outsiders (SD, 8:26)
Director Ryan Murphy talks about how the characters are both good guys and bad guys, and key members of the cast reflect on the moral and emotional complexities of their roles. It's all pop psychology though, and you really won't miss much by skipping this, or any of the film's other bonus features.
A Personal Memoir by Augusten Burroughs (SD, 6:03)
As opposed to what, an impersonal memoir? Aren't memoirs personal by definition? Anyway, Burroughs discusses how people can and do survive childhoods such as his and go on to thrive. He also briefly covers the process of optioning the book for film and meeting with director Ryan Murphy.
Creating the Cuckoo's Nest (SD, 4:31)
This is the shortest, but most interesting supplement, as production designer Richard Sherman talks about the process of decorating the surreal and cluttered Finch house, without it coming off like The Adams Family.
Running with Scissors Blu-ray, Overall Score and Recommendation
Running with Scissors works in chunks, but it never comes together like some other dysfunctional family tales. Some genuine and quirky performances are buried under an unwieldy script, and while fans of the memoir will probably enjoy it, I'd recommend that newcomers to Augusten Burrough's wacko world try renting the title first.
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