Arts & Entertainment
3 min

Running scared

Burroughs film shies away from its own subject

RUNNING WITH SCISSORS: The film adaptation of Augusten Burroughs' heart-breaking, humorous memoir of queer adolescent isolation and intergenerational sex barely skims the surface. Credit: Xtra West Files

“Where would we be without our painful childhoods?” asks Brian Cox as Dr Finch in the film Running with Scissors. In the case of Augusten Burroughs, probably not a best-selling author.

Based on his memoir, Running with Scissors is the coming of age story of Burroughs, whose mother Deirdre (Annette Bening) gives Dr Finch legal custody of her son after a violent divorce. Under the tutelage of the Finch family, Augusten learns the finer points of eating dog kibble, smoking cigarettes, and having gay sex.

As a fan of the book I expected the film to not entirely live up to its source material, but not even the lowest of expectations could prepare me for how awful this movie is.

“I don’t think they got it,” my companion said after the film.

“I don’t think they read it!” I replied.

Aside from its heart-breaking humour, Running with Scissors is a unique portrait of queer adolescent isolation. In the book, we get a glimpse into 10-year-old Augusten’s fantasy life: “I would have been an excellent member of the Brady Bunch,” he writes. “I would have been Shaun, the well-behaved blond boy who caused no trouble and helped Alice in the kitchen, then trimmed the split ends off Marcia’s hair.”

The movie, on the other hand, relies on stereotypical images of a pre-pubescent Augusten rolling his mother’s hair in curlers. That is about as irreverent as this movie gets.

From the script on up, the film is overshadowed by its own queasiness with the subject matter. In the role of Augusten, Joseph Cross never seems comfortable playing a gay teen; it’s like he’s so afraid of getting typecast by this movie he forgets that angst is angst, no matter who you’re blowing.

As Natalie Finch, Augusten’s confidante, Evan Rachel Wood spends the entire movie rolling her eyes at her family in disgust. Gwyneth Paltrow, as Natalie’s Bible-thumping sister, sleepwalks through her part like she can’t wait for it to be over. There were moments when I was embarrassed for Joseph Fiennes as Augusten’s 35-year-old boyfriend Neal Bookman. Of the supporting roles, only Jill Clayburgh seems to be trying–to win an Oscar.

By far the biggest disappointment of the film is Annette Bening. The part of Deirdre Burroughs had all the earmarks of a tour de force. Instead, Bening rehashes Carolyn Burnham, her character from American Beauty, but in vintage clothing. She can’t even pull off a believable same-sex kiss. That’s saying something for a woman who is married to Warren Beatty.

To quote Armistead Maupin, “Somebody get me a homosexual,” because that’s what this movie is sorely lacking.

Written and directed by Ryan Murphy, creator of the TV series Nip/Tuck, I was left with the impression that his sole interest in the book was not the material but the prestige of the piece and its all-star cast.

The more I watched, the more I could feel Murphy’s slick influence upstage the story. I could just hear him describing the movie in a production meeting with the film’s producers: “And there’s going to be this great montage in slow motion where Augusten and Natalie are breaking a hole through the kitchen ceiling to the tune of “Year of the Cat!” And while the roof is caving in on them, we’ll cut to scenes of the rest of the family individually falling apart! Doesn’t it just reek of metaphor?”

Yeah, if you’re directing a music video.

It’s in the film’s handling of Augusten’s relationship with Neal that I can truly see the impact of the religious right on popular culture.

“What can I say? He had a cool car,” Cross narrates after his first blowjob; compared to Burroughs: “My arms are stretched at my sides, pinned to the mattress by Neal’s hands. I must look like Jesus on the cross. This image actually occurs to me. I also think, I did not come here for this.”

The film’s producers obviously took the safest route possible, shying away from an in-depth analysis of a complicated intergenerational relationship, and the controversy it might engender.

The way this gay relationship is portrayed it’s like the film was shot in the ’70s, not set in it.

We never see the two men kiss, despite the fact that Cross is only pretending to be 13. Worst of all, there is actually a scene where they are in bed shirtless and still wearing their jeans. It’s like Brokeback Mountain never even happened.

The longer the movie got, the more I wished someone like Wes Anderson or Jean-Marc VallĂ©e had directed it, adept as they are at heartbreak, isolation, and humour. Then, just when you think the movie can’t get any worse, they tack on a groan-inducing happy ending.

The film’s only redeeming quality is its production design but that, like the rest of the film, comes off as so shiny and polished that it’s difficult to accept it as true.