Running With Scissors (Sony Pictures, R)

The film just wears you out, and it seems to go on and on and on. My eyes were literally glazed over by the time it ended.

 

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Running With Scissors just didn't work for me. This is one maddeningly inconsistent, aesthetically abrasive piece of cinema, and I almost feel guilty that I have to strain to say something positive about it.

But let's start by doing just that. The actors are not the problem. In fact, Annette Bening is a shoo-in for an Oscar nomination. She gives a master class in portraying a complex, disturbed, multi-faceted character in a thoroughly draining and head-scratching film. Bening is Deirdre Burroughs, the matriarch of a horribly dysfunctional family and a writer bent on getting her poetry published in The New Yorker magazine. Her son Augusten (Joseph Cross) narrates the film not very credibly, and her husband Norman (Alec Baldwin) drinks away his despair and has little idea (or apparent desire) of how to relate to his volatile wife and needy son.

There are some early funny scenes of Deirdre expressing none-too-sensitive opinions at a poetry reading, and the family quarreling/belittling each other over various things. But right away, a problem develops with the tone—are we supposed to laugh at the terrible hurt and loneliness running rampant in this family (because it is played for laughs at times), or get all emotionally worked up? The uneven mixture of these things is what ultimately sinks the film. The bickering Burroughs couple goes for marriage counseling to an esteemed psychiatrist, Dr. Finch (Brian Cox). He decides they need to make an enormous time commitment to really benefit from his services, and again, some of these scenes are kinda funny.

But when Deirdre completely subjugates herself to Finch's unusual treatment plan, even giving her son up for adoption to him—and when the shrink himself turns out to clearly be a loon (along with his timid, desperately downtrodden wife Agnes (Jill Clayburgh))—the film seriously begins to go off the rails. The Finch house is a monument to irrationality and creative excess, and Finch's two daughters—Natalie (Even Rachel Wood), a feisty young ingénue, and Hope (Gwyneth Paltrow), a spinster-ish Bible thumper—begin trying to influence the increasingly confused and skeptical Augusten.

Nothing that you expect or want to happen (such as the possibility that maybe Augusten and Natalie might pair up) ever does, and Deirdre's responses to her loss of control over her family get ever more shrill, as does just about every plot development. You're basically watching a portrait of two very, very dysfunctional families intermingling with each other, with supposedly comedic situations (like Augusten and Natalie smashing a hole in the ceiling to change the oppressive vibe of the living room or something) being set up, then rendered without a payoff. So you get lots and lots of tense dialogue, increasingly desperate characters trying to find their way, and almost no emotional bonds of any substance—although Augusten's tryst with a psycho gay boarder (Joseph Fiennes) is slightly promising. The film just wears you out, and it seems to go on and on and on. My eyes were literally glazed over by the time it ended.

Ryan Murphy directed this mess and adapted the screenplay from the best-selling memoir by Augusten Burroughs about his Dickensian upbringing in the '70s. I admit I laughed quite a few times, and I also admit that both Clayburgh and Cox give their all to their performances, although they don't work overtime the way Bening does. And Cross manages to be a decent young performer that you want to root for.

But very little in this movie sticks, and if the events in this movie really happened to Burroughs as portrayed, then we shouldn't be left scratching our heads or, worse, clutching our stomachs from the discomfort of enduring cinematic excess. Someone was running with scissors here, all right—it was the filmmakers, who managed to cut out the heart and soul of their project, leaving only this wild, uneven melodrama.

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