While the film version of Running With Scissors may not have you laughing and crying as much as the novel it’s based upon, it does deliver the essence of author Augusten Burrough’s crazy childhood and makes for a funny and sincere movie.
Burrough’s hysterically nutty, best-selling memoir from 2003 about growing up with his mentally ill mom and then the family of a quack psychiatrist is good fodder for the big screen. Preteen Augusten blossoms into homo-teendom amid his parents’ divorce and his mom’s slip from the mental wellness train. When she goes cuckoo, she gives him up to her unorthodox psychiatrist, Dr Finch. His household is completely nutbar: the kids play with electroshock machines, mom eats kibble and Finch does holy readings of his bowel movements.
It’s at this point that you have to remind yourself that this is a true story.
The movie version’s casting is well-chosen and the performances excellent, including the star-studded cast of Annette Bening, Alec Baldwin, Joseph Fiennes, Brian Cox and that Gwyneth girl. However, lovers of the book will instantly notice that the movie beefs up characters to make more of an ensemble piece. Finch’s wife, Agnes (Jill Clayburgh), turns into a friendly mother-figure for Augusten; Bookman (Fiennes) is a more violent, scary boyfriend and not as pathetic as in the novel. And wasn’t there a third sister? But the character changes don’t do all that much to harm the movie.
Young actor Joseph Cross is adorably funny and endearing as Augusten and Bening is likewise wonderful as his mom, Deirdre. Bening usually has that gunning-for-Oscar vibe in all of her performances but with this role she is a little more understated and enthralling.
The biggest problem in the move from page to screen is tone. What’s missing is that sarcastic, matter-of-fact attitude that Burroughs brings to his writing. Augusten is quite quirky in the book and eventually finds his niche in the kooky Finch family. The movie adds a level of levity and sorrow that makes Augusten an extremely piteous character. Half the fun in the book was that “go-with-the flow” perspective with which Burroughs observed his life.
Gladly, the homo content wasn’t excised from the movie. From 15-year-old Augusten’s NAMBLA-like relationship with Bookman as well as his mom’s turn to the Sapphic side, the powers that be in Hollywood left the bent parts untouched.
Going in, I was expecting more of a Royal Tenenbaums quirkiness in style but director Ryan Murphy (cocreator of Popular and Nip/ Tuck) gives you a more heartfelt Forrest Gump or American Beauty kind of film.
Burroughs is touted as the new David Sedaris. The book and film are a testament to homo humour as a riposte to life’s challenges. Running With Scissors is a good movie and an even better book.