Dir: Ryan Murphy. US.2006. 122 mins.
Ryan Murphy, the Hollywood wunderkind whose Nip/Tuck is one of the most cutting edge series on US TV atthe moment, turns his caustic sensibilities to Running With Scissors, the film version of Augusten Burroughs' popularmemoirs. As one might expect from the creator of Nip/Tuck, Murphy opts for a bleak tone in the story of ayoung boy's nightmare childhood, replacing the cheerful black comedy ofBurroughs' episodic book with an unironic blackness.
Although Murphy is about thehottest talent in Hollywood right now and his cast here is insanely hip, RunningWith Scissors will be a bumpy ridefor most viewers. The many fans of the book's exuberance will be let down byMurphy's sombre interpretation, while newcomers to the peculiar Burroughs worldwill find it rhythmically uneven and, rather like Nip/Tuck, lacking in warmth.
Mental illness has had amixed track record at the box office, occasionally hitting glorious highs with OneFlew Over The Cuckoo's Nest and ABeautiful Mind (and Forrest Gump, depending on your point of view), but generallyappealing to specialized tastes. This film has a very high "cool" factor but itis still unquestionably small, touching along the way on gay sex, paedophiliaand pharmaceutical abuse.
It will probably end upsomewhere between the modest numbers of Pi ($3.2m in 1998) and Proof($6.6m in 2005) and the respectable heights of Sling Blade ($24.4m in 1996), Girl, Interrupted ($28.9m in 1999) and Shine ($35.9m in 1996).
Domestic and internationalnumbers will be boosted if the film can score in the upcoming awards season.Most likely to draw attention to the film will be nominations for AnnetteBening as Augusten's mentally ill mother Deirdre.
The film starts in 1971 whenAugusten is just six, the precocious only child of sparring married coupleDeirdre and her alcoholic maths professor husband Norman (Baldwin). Deirdre isa domineering woman, convinced she is the next great American poet who forcesAugusten to listen to her readings and her plans for national fame.
When the marriage breaks upand Norman leaves, Deirdre falls under the spell of the commanding andunconventional therapist Dr Finch (Cox) who persuades her that she needs an intensivecourse of soul-searching away from distractions like her son. The 12 year-oldAugusten (Cross), therefore, is packed off to the Finch family home, aramshackle and filthy pile where he falls in with the dysfunctional clan -Finch's passive wife (Clayburgh), Bible-loving older daughter Hope (Paltrow),rebellious, foul-mouthed younger daughter Natalie (Wood) and Neil Bookman(Fiennes), a 35 year-old adopted son with serious mental problems.
The fastidious Augustenreluctantly adopts the laissez-faire ways of the Finch family, drops out ofschool with their blessing and embarks on an affair with Neil which cements hissexuality. As his teenage years ramble on rudderlessly, his mother becomesincreasingly disturbed, taking lesbian lovers (Chenoweth, Union), but drivingthem away with her insanity. Augusten comes to realize that neither Finch norhimself can help her, and he resolves to escape the madness inflicted on him.
There's so much to admire ona scene-by-scene basis in Running With Scissors that its overall failure tocohere is doubly disappointing. The performances are exemplary: Bening neverresorts to hysteria in a role which could so easily have been a caricature,offering an unsettling glimpse into the pain of bipolar disorder, Cross blendsjust the right amount of childhood confusion with the knowing cynicism thatBurroughs was compelled to adopt, Wood is magnetic as the charismatic Natalie,Fiennes surprisingly convincing as Bookman and Cox, as always, commanding asthe amoral Finch. The character of Hope is reduced from the book and Paltrowhas little chance to shine.
Murphy's maudlin finale - around of glum farewells as Augusten sets off to New York to start a new life -belies the humour and optimism that shone through at the end of Burroughs'memoirs. Although Burroughs is publicly endorsing the film, readers of the bookwill miss his wry, engaging commentary.
Sony Pictures Releasing International
Based on the memoir by Augusten Burroughs
James S Levine
Evan Rachel Wood