I was excited for the film version. Having read it I knew it was well cast and I assumed that the film would be forced to give dramatic shape and depth to the book’s anecdotal pleasures which didn’t seem to run as deep as the material could have. What I wasn't prepared for was a faithful well acted version of the book that still disappoints.
Running With Scissors. Directed by Ryan Murphy | Starring Annette Bening, Alec Baldwin,
Brian Cox, Evan Rachel Wood and Joseph Cross
Top honors go, as expected, to the miraculous Annette Bening who does inspired work as Dierdre, a complete narcissist and lesbian poet. There’s a moment early in the film that completely sold me on the performance. Dierdre says something outre that’s supposed to be self-actualizing but her face is all about her eyes darting to her conversation partner. This 'journey inward' is, to a large degree, a self-delusional front for external focus. She wants to provoke. Bening makes a memorable mother from hell and she’s cast exceptionally well to amp up the drama. Here we have an actress known for her sparkling eyes and commanding voice and watching her lose both, those twinkly eyes dim and her voice slows under the weight of psychiatric medication, is troubling.
But the film keeps working against itself. Most scenes have terrific dialogue but the music is always booming, threatening to drown it out. To make it worse the song choices are overly familiar and the original scoring is oppressive. Scissors does have a consistent tone that seems perfectly sympatico with the book, but it doesn't seem to work. The great cast are, each and every one, adept at funny line readings and there they are in passages of comic lunacy lifted directly from the book. And yet, as a film this is all curiously unfunny.
I suspect that the act of seeing this terrible childhood reenacted rather than reading it (when you can pick and choose what you will and won’t picture) makes the crucial difference. I just wanted Augusten to be out from under all the crazy. I just wanted his mom to get better. I couldn’t laugh heartily at lives filled with so much mental anguish. As a drama, Running With Scissors: The Movie comes close to working. But it wants to be comic like the book to mask the pain. In its effort to have it both ways it falls on itself.