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Running with Scissors pokes its eyes out

by Glen Baity

Augusten Burroughs’ blockbuster 2002 memoir Running with Scissors is a smart, funny and perhaps sensationalized account of one monstrously strange childhood. Its author, a grade-school-graduate-turned-alcoholic-turned-advertising-rep-turned-author, has been one of my favorites since I read this, his second and best book.

The film version necessarily covers an abbreviated version of the story. In his early teen years, Augusten (played stiffly by newcomer Joseph Cross), whose narcissistic parents (Alec Baldwin and Annette Bening) are headed for a rocky divorce, is placed in the care of his mother’s therapist, Freudian disciple Dr. Finch (Brian Cox).

Augusten, an obsessively tidy, reserved child, wades into the lives of the madcap Finch family: dog food-munching, semi-normal Agnes (Jill Clayburgh); rebel without a cause Natalie (Evan Rachel Wood); schoolmarmish Hope (Gwyneth Paltrow); and Dr. Finch himself, who keeps Augusten’s mother in a drug-induced haze. Finch believes that children become adults at age 13, and as such offers no guidance or discipline to the impressionable minds and raging hormones running, like feral animals, around his home.

That home is a monument to fleeting impulses indulged. The Christmas tree has been standing in the living room for two years. Dishes overflow from the sink onto adjacent counters. Mountains of stuff are piled everywhere, various items used and discarded indiscriminately. The house itself is Pepto-pink, a color choice that exists as a semi-permanent reminder of what must have seemed like a good idea, at some point in time, to some random person.

Burroughs’ book tells a sad story of abandonment and child abuse, made compelling and often hilarious by the author’s unique voice. It makes for a great read, and an abysmal viewing experience.

That dissonance is easy enough to explain: Burroughs’ childhood, if it was anything at all like he describes it, was absolutely horrifying. He watched from the sidelines as his mother, an aspiring poet of exceptionally modest talent, let her delusions of grandeur give way to a consuming depression, which in turn led to overmedication and bouts with insanity. His father abandoned the family and moved on to greener, younger pastures. His legal guardian was a lunatic; his first relationship as a young gay man was with a schizophrenic pedophile.

But in his memoir, Burroughs conveys all this with the fierce wit of a born survivor. He never solicits pity, and he describes the events of his youth with a disarming comic sensibility. That maturity came later in the author’s life.

In director/screenwriter Ryan Murphy’s straightforward retelling of the story, all the audience sees is the main character’s initial reaction to everything that happens to him, which is not at all amusing. The aspect that makes it palatable – Burroughs’ knowing, grown-up voice – is deafening in its absence.

I suppose that’s a pitfall of adapting a memoir: The author is necessarily married to every aspect of his story, so any adaptation will have holes a filmmaker can’t patch by conventional means. Running with Scissors is done in for lack of the deft sense of humor that makes the book such a pleasure. Little did I know when I read it how much Burroughs’ voice was integral to his account, but it’s glaringly obvious here. The context for the film’s events is missing. The characters, who live and breathe on the page, seem completely fabricated, coming off as nuthouse clichés and mean-spirited composites of every indie movie stock character in the canon.

More frustratingly, none of their actions make any sense whatsoever. In this regard, I suppose, one could argue that the viewer shares that sensation with the character of Augusten, but even that feels like a copout. In real life, Burroughs had months and years to work out these people’s motivations. His suppositions on that point play an important role in his memoir, but the film’s two hours prove insufficient to explain any of it, causing the characters to come off as pointlessly eccentric.

As a consequence, viewers – even those who read the book – might find themselves scratching their heads and wondering how they ever laughed at this story. Anyone coming to it for the first time will probably find it wholly unbelievable, despite the fact that the film is bookended by proclamations that it is “based on the personal memoir” of its author.

Either way, the majority of the anecdotes ring hollow. It’s a story entirely out of context, which causes it to seem false in all the ways its written counterpart feels genuine. What remains is a pedestrian tale of suburban dystopia that fails to do its source justice.

If you keep making that face when you read Glen Baity’s film reviews, it’ll freeze that way. Why not e-mail him at glen.baity@gmail.com instead?

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