Really bad movies I can deal with just fine: they’re fun to tear apart. Really good moves are their own reward, and usually the hardest part about reviewing them is figuring out how to winnow down everything that’s good about them into 800 or 1000 words.
It’s movies like this one that make me wanna hang up my hat as a critic, because I just can’t figure out what’s wrong with it. I should love Running with Scissors. It looks like a lot of stuff I adore in movies: it revels in its quirky humor, it celebrates the unconventional, it refuses to play nice, either with its characters or its narrative. Hell, it even comes with a ready-made, built-in opportunity for me to indulge in one of my rants about Generation X and why we’re so screwed up. But I can’t manage to feel anything at all for the movie. I can barely even think about it without wanting to throw off a giant mental shrug.
I think maybe writer/director Ryan Murphy — he’s a behind-the-scenes vet of Nip/Tuck, which is brilliant, and why that didn’t carry over is hard to say — might be trying too hard to convince us that he’s not trying so hard to convince us. Like the film is almost too calculated in its attempt not to feel calculated. I haven’t read Augusten Burroughs’ coming-of-age memoir upon which the film is based, and it could be that in his prose he’s a lot more relaxed about describing just about the worst childhood you can imagine that doesn’t involve actually being locked in a cage and fed nothing but monkey chow. Obviously, he survived abandonment by his parents, adoption by a family of freaks, and a “relationship” with a 35-year-old man when he was only 13 that cannot but constitute child abuse well enough to become a literary darling. But I don’t quite buy it here: the whole never becomes more than the sum of its very good parts, and the whole is neither just bizarre enough to have to be true nor constructed in such a way as to make you imagine it’s a twisted fantasy. I wanted to compare Burroughs’ childhood to something out of an intermarriage between the Addams family and the Royal Tenenbaums, but nobody here is really quite so extraordinary as to be invented nor quite so tragicomic as to be genuine.
Smart, sensitive Augusten (the very fine Joseph Cross: Flags of Our Fathers, Strangers with Candy) gets carted off to the Finch household, you see, when his mother goes bonko and falls under the extreme influence of her shrink: she’s played by Annette Bening (Being Julia, Open Range), he’s played by Brian Cox (Red Eye, The Bourne Supremacy), and they’re both doing a crazy gimme-an-Oscar thing, not that it’s not enjoyable. The Finch house is a nightmare of domesticity gone awry: the Christmas tree has been up for years, which makes for a perfect open-air potty for a little kid to poop behind; dog kibble is an afternoon snack; big sis Hope (Gwyneth Paltrow: Infamous, Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow) deprives her pet cat of food, water, and mobility, just to see what would happen. When offered a cup of coffee, the Finches are the kind of people to say, “I’d like some slices of bologna with a side of horseradish” (an actual quote from the film). You laugh momentarily, but then you think: Wait, what? You wonder if maybe the whole movie is purpose-built around moments like that, that feel oddball merely for oddball’s sake; or else it’s purpose-built around the groovy 70s soundtrack.
“Where would we be without our painful childhoods?” Dr. Finch ponders, almost rhetorically at one point. But where indeed? Maybe the problem with Running with Scissors is that it takes no point of view on this particular painful childhood — it doesn’t even seem to have anything to say about Augusten’s “affair” with Neil (Joseph Fiennes: The Great Raid, The Merchant of Venice), another head case who hangs around the Finches’. The film is neither daring enough to say, Maybe there’s nothing wrong with this, nor is it committed enough to consider — if only later to dismiss — any damage it might have done to Augusten.
That’s the film all over: it doesn’t run with scissors; it walks carefully, aware of how dangerous they are and unwilling to get hurt as it carries them.