They tell you not to do it for a reason

The film adaptation of Augusten Burroughs’ memoirs, Running with Scissors, details his completely un-orthodox (read: fucked up) up-bringing. The film opens with the line: “You wouldn’t believe me anyways,” as a sort of caution on the absurdity of the following story. Indeed, the line resonates as the movie rolls on and jaws are permanently unhinged one by one in disbelief.

From the ads, expectations about the movie are predictable. Young boy is given away by his unhinged mother (played by the always-perfect Annette Bening) to her equally unhinged psychologist. Whimsy and Wes Anderson-esque eccentricities result, right? Not really. Unlike Anderson’s dysfunctional family piece, The Royal Tenenbaums, Scissors’ narrator constantly reminds viewers this really happened to him, so the meant-to-be-funny juxtaposition of mentally-unstable character bits are actually deeply disturbing.

Current trends would suggest the best kind of comedy is the kind that makes you uncomfortable. Running with Scissors is proof this isn’t true, as the film goes far beyond simple discomfort. In fact, the proclaimed truthfulness of the story may even render it so grotesquely funny, it’s unfunny. Laughter, if any is to be had, may be followed or repressed by extreme guilt, horror and depression.

Scissors starts out lightly enough and maybe that’s why it hits so hard at the end. Scenes with Alec Baldwin as the alcoholic father, completely aghast at his lot in life, are hilarious. His blank expression says it all: “How the hell did I end up with a crazy, narcissistic poet for a wife and a gay son who is showing early signs of his mother’s neurosis?” The introduction of Brian Cox as the insane psychologist Dr. Finch is also brilliantly done and promises more gems of dialogue such as this early exchange:

Deirdre: “Would you like some Sanka, Dr. Finch?”

Dr. Finch: “No, I would like a slice of bologna with a side of horseradish.”

The promise however, starts to fade about a third of the way through, and the initially delightful quips wear thin, become annoying and eventually desperate.

Augusten moves into the doctor’s absurd mansion, which looks as if it’s been overrun by classy squatters. Several potentially funny vignettes of life with a bunch of messed-up people are shown, but are ultimately just bizarre and more than a little forced.

The discovery of Dr. Finch’s eccentricities with fecal analysis follow, along with the introduction of the masturbatorium, an episode with Freud the family cat, fun with electro-shock therapy and snacking on kibble with the sedate Mrs. Finch.

Initially, Augusten and the audience find amusement in the zany house, but it’s clear quickly this is no healthy environment to grow up in. This is Augusten’s dilemma at it’s simplest. The only other option, and an unattractive one at that, is to move back with his mother, who is doing no better with the help of Dr. Finch.

Annette Bening’s performance as Mrs. Burroughs is as excellent as it should be. Burroughs, though drawn with a bit of a caricature in mind, is pulled off sincerely and comes across as both funny and incredibly sad. When Augusten accuses his mother’s female lover of looking at her craziness as something to entertain her, the entire audience is guilty of it–the whole movie makes ‘craziness’ an entertainment. Laughter is an attempt to mask the sadness, as much as the funny scenes are a failed attempt to glaze over the serious ones.

The point at the end, we’re told, is that–ha-ha-ha–Augusten actually survived this crazy childhood to grow up and write a best-selling memoir. While the book might be a stirring tale of development through adversity, it doesn’t translate well to the screen. Blown up to two hours by thirty feet across, Augusten’s story comes across as annoying, tedious and ham-fisted.

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