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Running with Scissors

Running with Scissors is akin to the title-inspiring act: Casually dangerous and exciting in a taboo-breaking way, but, just as in life, a few careless missteps inflict some serious wounds.


Adapted from Augusten Burroughs' bestselling 2002 memoir which redefined the notion of a dysfunctional upbringing—or f'd-upbringing, in his case—Scissors initially follows the dynamic between sweet, quirky Augusten (Joseph Cross) and his increasingly erratic and unstable mother Deirdre (Annette Bening), whose overwhelming combination of relentless self-pity, artistic pretensions and attention-whoring torpedoes her marriage and throws Augusten's youth into a morass of high-drama chaos. Deirdre seeks solace from—and becomes irretrievably dependent upon—her unconventional therapist Dr. Finch (Brian Cox), a pseudo-intellectual, upper--and downer--dispensing Santa Clause figure. But when Augusten is brought to live in the Finches' home as part of his mother's therapy, he discovers a family in an equally extreme state of psychological disarray. There's Finch's long-suffering, kibble-eating wife (Jill Clayburgh); devoted but uptight older daughter (Gwyneth Paltrow); rebellious Goth Girl younger daughter (Evan Rachel Wood); and the adopted son (Joseph Fiennes), perhaps the most dangerously damaged of the lot. The film follows Augusten's journey to alternately connect and disconnect with his freakish foster family and, especially, his mother, as she hurdles down a path toward complete mental breakdown.


Bening is undeniably one of the finest, most fearless actresses working in Hollywood, having made a specialty of cracking the brittle facades of women on the brink--from American Beauty to Being Julia to Mrs. Harris. Deirdre's high-strung starting point begins where most of these characters end, though, and Bening robustly charges unblinking into the abyss, her performance powering the film—towering over it, actually. The members of the A-list ensemble rises to her occasion, without resorting to chewing the scenery: Fiennes fuels his part with pathos; Cox is refreshingly loopy yet utterly straight-faced as a highly rationalizing but very, very bad therapist; Alec Baldwin, as Augusten's dad, is as dry and stinging as a particularly stiff martini; Wood charges up an underwritten role; Clayburgh deftly sidesteps what might have been a caricature to provide the film's most moving moment; and Paltrow makes even her barely-there character memorable. Least served in the crowd, though, is the otherwise well-cast newcomer Cross as the protagonist, who too often gets lost when the film focuses on the showier side characters.


Unfortunately, acting excellence becomes the primary reason to follow the film to its conclusion. Director Ryan Murphy, the driving force behind the TV drama Nip/Tuck, has in his directorial debut delivered a film that is just as frustrating as that series, serving up deliciously juicy individual sequences and potent moments of emotional truth, and then just as quickly derailing them with pulpy, contrived twists and an insistence on artificial eccentricity that echoes the worst impulses of, say, Wes Anderson. While the film adeptly depicts many of the serious, hilarious and heartbreaking moments that defined Burroughs' off-kilter youth, it also indulges in a relentless, subtlety-free quirkiness of style and setting—too often the only way to stay invested is to remind oneself that these things did indeed happen to the real Burroughs. Murphy's over-stylized "Get it? They're all CRAZY!" approach not only fails to match the dry, detached and urbanely witty tone of Burroughs' memoir, it often undermines the intense clarity of his actors' spot-on instincts. Ultimately, it takes more than one of Murphy's TV plastic surgeons to disguise the scars left from his cinematic sprint wielding scissors.

Bottom Line rated this film 2 1/2 stars.