Friday, October 20, 2006

Running With Scissors

A month ago I finally got around to reading Augusten Burrough’s hit memoir Running With Scissors. Burroughs is a witty writer and the book is terribly amusing. I mean “terribly” in two senses of the word. Terribly as in the affected version of ‘very’ and ‘terribly’ as in terrible. Even if you account for writerly embellishment (which you always should) the author had what most sane people would consider a horrific adolescence: absent drunk father, crazy self-absorbed mother, predatory boyfriend, and a truly chaotic adoptive home.

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.

C+
*

15 comments:

adam k. said...

Nice to finally hear your thoughts on this, Nathaniel. It seems people are letting their disappointment with this film run away with them, what with all the hateful reviews. But still, what a disappointment for such a promising project.

Glad to hear that Bening, at least, was great. What do you think of her oscar chances? Film bitch chances? I'm assuming her chances at the latter are far greater.

Hey, you know what? I was reading that Newsweek article on Bening where it talks about how the performance of craziness is "all in the eyes", the way they look sort of glazed over and hyper-aware, yet not self-aware... and I thought "wow, Bening totally does that here" and then I realized Deirdre reminded me of someone. A lot. And I kept thinking "who is it?" and then it dawned on me:

Sharon Stone.

NATHANIEL R said...

hmmmm, interesting observation. I would have to agree with Stone = crazy eyes.

Bening was super. And the film certainly has moments. It's right there with The Black Dahlia for me in 2006 films that I feel fail but I still kind of have the urge to recommend --confusing.

adam k. said...

It's not even just the eyes. It's also the body language and the scarily confident voice. And the whole look. But the eyes are huge, yes. I look into Deirdre's eyes and I see Sharon Stone. Especially in that photo you used in your review.

Kamikaze Camel said...

But what of Oscar?

adam k. said...

Maybe Nathaniel doesn't wanna talk about Annette and oscar.

Anonymous said...

Who would? The moment you feel brave enough to start, Hilary Swank pops up out of nowhere and spoils your day.

Rob

Anonymous said...

Julianne Moore was originally lined up to play Diedre. I believe she backed out because of Freedomland. Which makes me want to scream...WHY??? This would have been a great opportunity for Julianne. Most likely it would have broke her out of the rut she's been in since The Hours.

After seeing the previews with Annette, I'd have to wonder what Julianne would or could have done differently. This is not a knock against either actress. I just would have loved to see Julianne do something different.

Annette is the master....and has a long running history....of playing neurotic women. This is not a far fetch from most of her great roles. Even though I feel Annette is one of the few elite actress around. I still have to ask the question. Will she get...yet another Oscar nomination...for playing a women on the edge?

mab

Nick M. said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Nick M. said...

This film is pathetically toothless.

Your review is fine, Nathaniel, but I disagree that it keeps a consistent tone. Despite being consistently bland, it's a very tonally confused production. Did you go to the bathroom during ANY scene with Jill Clayburgh? If so, lucky you.

Marcelo said...

I'm laughing so hard right now!!!
Congrats, Rob.

Kamikaze Camel said...

I'm surprised Julianne backed out because while the film doesn't have her LOSING her child, it would have her giving the child away.

adam k. said...

Good point, Glenn.

But then again, that's not the same as KILLING her child. Doesn't she do that in Freedomland, her preferred vehicle? I wouldn't know, cause I steered clear.

Julianne really does need to play Medea. Perhaps then all her issues would finally be solved.

NATHANIEL R said...

In Juli's defense... (and oh, how I never thought I'd say that in regards to Freedomland) when she signed on it was with director Michael Winterbottom and Morgan Freeman (i think it was) so the project probably looked more attractive then.

john g. said...

Having seen RWS last night, I mostly agree with you, Nathaniel. Bening's wonderful here, but almost by default as most of the others are doing god-awful mugging turns. It also occurred to me while watching it that Bening, who has never (critical consensus to the contrary notwithstanding) displayed an iota of a REAL sense of humor in her performances, gets this right mostly by getting it wrong. Her Deirdre is a far better turn than her AMERICAN BEAUTY turn, but lesser than her turns in THE GRIFTERS and MRS HARRIS. It seems to me that these latter two films have dark hearts and truly ferocious script wit guiding them and it looks like Bening was forbidden to be "funny" in those films. Whereas she seems to have been left to her own devices in films like AMERICAN BEAUTY and RUNNING WITH SCISSORS, which to me are films which pretend at dark ferocity while possessing all the bite of a superior sitcom.

As for Bening's Oscar chances...... Helen Mirren is this year's Hilary Swank for Bening, so I see no statues for Bening this year.

NATHANIEL R said...

well neither do I.

Mirren would be vulnerable if The Queen weren't so popular as a film. But it looks like it's hers.

pity (not that I don't like her) because I always prefer a real contest for the statue.