The majority of critics have trashed Ryan Murphy’s (TV’s Nip/Tuck) debut feature Running with Scissors. Words like “smug,” “unpleasant” and “loathsome” (this last one crops up several times) pepper these reviews. There are a few notable exceptions — the reviews of Andrew Sarris, Jack Mathews and David Edelstein being among them — but the film seems to have genuinely angered a number of people. I understand this even though I don’t agree with it. I understand it because I spent the better part of two days trying to decide if I loved it or hated it. I loved it.
The standard comparison of Running with Scissors to the films of Wes Anderson (The Royal Tenenbaums) is at once apt and completely beside the point. The film does indeed share a number of stylistic similarities with Anderson’s work, but it has an equal number of differences. Yes, both filmmakers are obviously obsessed with the quirkier aspects of humanity. Both have an approach that, as one critic put it, involves the idea that every room is the stage for a set piece. And both rely pretty heavily on a rock/pop soundtrack. But most of these elements function somewhat differently for each director.
The quirkiness in Murphy’s film is darker and not grounded in Andersonian deadpan understatement. The set piece business is more theatrical affectation in Anderson than it is here. (A friend of mine who dislikes Anderson’s films likens them to Anderson moving figures around in a dollhouse — a criticism I understand without finding it a downside.) As for the soundtracks, Anderson uses his pop songs as much for the feeling evoked by their sound as for any thematic significance (face it, “Oh Yoko!” really has nothing to do with Bill Murray and Jason Schwartzman riding bicycles in Rushmore, but it sounds right). Murphy’s use of such music here is more directly related to matching what the songs are about to the events on the screen. His use of Manfred Mann’s “Blinded by the Light” is brilliant, while the choice of Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young’s “Teach Your Children” over the ending credits is heartbreakingly to the point.
I think the biggest mistake made with Murphy’s film version of Augusten Burroughs’ memoir lies in an advertising campaign that stresses the film’s quirky humor, leading viewers to expect something far more comedic than the film at hand. Yes, there’s a great deal of darkly humorous material in the film, but at bottom, this is a serious, deeply disturbing look at the “morning after” the 1960s in American culture.
The film mostly takes place in the waning days of the 1970s when the kids of the ’60s found themselves adults with children of their own. One such case is Deidre Burroughs (Annette Bening), a self-absorbed housewife who harbors notions of being a much-admired and important poet and writer — despite little evidence of talent and no evidence at all that any such future exists. Husband Norman (Alec Baldwin) is an alcoholic who has had it with her and the entire family experience. In the middle of this is their 14-year-old gay son, Augusten (Joseph Cross, Flags of Our Fathers). He actually believes in his mother’s talent and worships her, so he’s understandably shocked and hurt when she turns him over to the family of her psychiatrist/guru Dr. Finch (Brian Cox), finally to the point of letting Finch adopt the boy.
Under the best of circumstances moving into the Finch home would be a shock to the system. The house is a clutter- and filth-filled, rambling, falling down, bright pink mansion with grounds that look like a junkyard. The inhabitants are even worse — sexually uptight Hope (Gwyneth Paltrow), emotionally unstable Natalie (Evan Rachel Wood, The Upside of Anger), and terminally depressed mother, Agnes (Jill Clayburgh), who gloomily snacks on dog kibble while watching Dark Shadows reruns in a room with a 2-year-old Christmas tree. And there’s the doctor himself — a delusional crackpot with a penchant for doping up his patients (“I just got some samples in the mail”) and draining their bank accounts. Off to the side is Finch’s 35-year-old adopted gay son, Neil Bookman (Joseph Fiennes), who has been thrown out of the house, but is allowed in for therapy.
That’s the setup, but it hardly describes the events of the film or the complex characterizations, which manage to be surprisingly sympathetic even when common sense says they oughtn’t be. The cast is impeccable, and while Annette Bening deserves the accolades she’s received for her portrayal of the addled and addicted mother, the real acting honors should go to Jill Clayburgh for a performance that’s as daring as it is wrenchingly moving. She is the surprising core of true strength at the center of the madness — and she’s given one of the great ending lines of all time.
I urge you to see it for yourself — bearing in mind that this is no lightweight comedy. Rather, it’s a film about dreams, about gurus and disciples, about self-centered people destroying each other. Yes, it can make you laugh, but it breaks your heart at the same time. It’s a disturbing work, but not a hopeless or nihilistic one. Rated R for strong language and elements of sexuality, violence and substance abuse.
– reviewed by Ken Hanke