Running With Scissors

Running With Scissors

The line between quirkily eccentric and dangerously crazy is a thin and difficult one to locate. And it is this precise line that Ryan Murphy (the creator of Nip/Tuck) walks in his new film, Running with Scissors), an adaptation of Augusten Burroughs’ 2002 memoir. At first glance, Running with Scissors looks and feels like a reworking of Wes Anderson’s Royal Tenenbaum’s: we’ve got a lovingly nostalgic evocation of an era (the late ’70s and early ’80s), a family of oddball narcissists (this was the “Me Generation” after all) and a slew of soul-smile pop songs. Assuming we’ve been here before, we settle in for some quirky, American indie fun. But that’s all part of Murphy’s plan—he’s exploiting the Wes Anderson aesthetic to play with our ideas of eccentricity.

Augusten (Joseph Cross) is a fragile but doting young son to his Anne Sexton-idolizing, self-obsessed mother Deirdre (Annette Bening). Dad (Alec Baldwin) is an alcoholic academic who finds mom’s increasing instability all a bit too much. When Deirdre starts seeing Dr. Finch (Brian Cox), an unorthodox shrink who keeps a “masturbatorium” (yes, that’s right) in an adjacent room to his office, complete with photos of Golda Meir and the Queen, the marriage breaks up and Augusten finds himself left with the doctor’s family in their Barbie pink derelict mansion. Finch’s shell-shocked ghost of a wife (Jill Clayburgh) and his kibble-eating, Bible-thumping elder daughter (Gwyneth Paltrow) scare the bejesus out of Augusten. The doctor’s only half normal family member is his rebellious daughter Natalie (Evan Rachel Wood). Their shared dreams of escaping the madness are all that keep the young boy sane. Seems like good fun right? What’s better than a film peopled with a cast of American nutcases and set to a bubble gum soundtrack?

When Augusten finds himself in a romantic relationship with Finch’s much older, schizophrenic stepson Neil (Joseph Fiennes), however, it’s quickly apparent that this is no Tenenbaums. While the relationship between Augusten and Neil is thankfully treated without a hint of judgment, the fact that the boy is a mere 14 makes you realize that, despite all the Elton John numbers and nostalgic keystones, this is actually a tragic tale. These people are sick. The boy lost in the middle of it all is gonna need way more than pharmaceuticals to get over it.

Running with Scissors is ultimately an off-kilter tragedy, a deconstruction of our obsession with the oddball. It’s filled with remarkable performances, only faltering when its pursuit of a “Quirky New Wave”aesthetic undermines its emotional impact.

Running With Scissors is now playing at the Varsity (Manulife Centre, Bloor at Bay, 416-961-6303)