This generation has three, and only three, seminal memoirs: A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, A Million Little Pieces, and Running with Scissors. This is an incontrovertible fact.* With AHWoSG, Eggers introduced the whimsical exploration/exploitation of personal tragedy through the use of post-ironic, anti-ironic irony. In A Million Little Pieces, James Frey basically told Eggers to fuck off, arguing through his own memoir (and in interviews) that personal misfortune should be faced head on with brutal, spare language and absolutely no sense of humor. In an anti-post-ironic twist, Frey was later exposed as a fraud, liar, killer of kittens, and a Communist, and his stark approach was thus discredited along with his fabricated narrative.
Augusten Burroughs, however, created a brilliant memoir that had little to do with prose (his was not remarkable) or stylistic flourishes (which he dispensed with completely). Indeed, Running with Scissors had little to do with the earth-shattering use of language, and a lot to do with striking the right tone, which is where Burroughs’ genius lie. Few memoirists, I’d argue, could have deftly strung together as many bizarre and misfortunately outlandish incidents as did Burroughs in Running With Scissors, all the while maintaining an astonishingly good sense of humor. Reading about a 12-year-old boy semi-voluntarily submitting to an increasingly painful blowjob from a 34-year-old pedophile could be stomach-wrenching and/or incredibly sad in the hands of a lesser author. But, as Burroughs tells it, it’s downright hilarious, even if there is a certain amount of discomfort associated with the laughter the experience elicits.
And that’s the problem with Running with Scissors, the feature film. The characters, the unheard-of idiosyncrasies, and the holy-shit-that-didn’t-just-happen! events from the memoir are still there, but Burroughs’ tone didn’t quite make the cut. Moreover, his matter-of-fact voice is gone, as is the dry, anti-pitiable first-person perspective. In their place is a film that describes setting and character and draws on period-appropriate props and a big, expensive cast, but it’s not really about Augusten Burroughs anymore. And that’s a goddamn shame.
Running with Scissors is an account of the life of Augusten Burroughs (Joseph Cross), mostly between the ages of 12 and 15, starting when his mother, Deidre (Annette Bening) and alcoholic father, Norman (Alec Baldwin) separate, driven apart by a crackpot shrink, Dr. Finch (Brian Cox). Deidre is a Pulitzer-Prize-winning poet in her own mind, but her mental instability is exacerbated by Dr. Finch’s brand of psychotherapy — which entails affirming and encouraging her delusions of grandeur — and his indiscriminate need to medicate her narcissism. In other words, he gets rid of a nasty hangnail by chopping off an entire arm.
While Deirdre is either institutionalized or sexually placated by several of Finch’s lesbian patients, Augusten is left with the doctor and his eccentric (bloody fucking insane) family. It is in Finch’s house that Burroughs more or less discovers he’s gay, but Finch’s family — a weird collection of way off-kilter 1970s lost souls — mistake adolescence for adulthood and think nothing of the fact that Augusten is fellating Finch’s psychotic 34-year-old adopted son (Joseph Fiennes); in fact, they encourage it. Despite an environment of absolute lunacy, however, Augusten manages to remain mostly above the fray and, at least in the book version of Scissors, find the humor inherent in his plight.
But Ryan Murphy (“Nip/Tuck”), who adapted and directed Scissors, apparently didn’t read the same book the rest of us did. Burroughs’ memoir was funny and at times touching, but it never sought anyone’s pity. If you wept while reading it, it was because you were laughing too hard to breathe otherwise. But Murphy must have misread it, because his adaptation not only bastardizes the spirit of the memoir, it deeply disrespects it.
I’ll grant the movie this, however. The soundtrack is good and Annette Bening is her usual phenomenal self, creating in Deirdre a vulnerable, Valium-addled Norma Desmond crossed with Sylvia Plath. She was everything I envisioned in that character: self-obsessed, overpowering, raging, deluded, controlling, slightly schizophrenic, and completely fucking irredeemable. Bening successfully conceives a character whose attempts to educe pity create a layered reaction full of both resentment and sympathy. You want to hate her, but — if you can see past the neglect — there’s something both dignified and admirable in her self-absorption, especially given the gender politics of the era.
But everything else in Running with Scissors is a complete and utter failure. Dr. Finch, at one point in the film, suggests that the best therapy is getting your anger out and, that being the case, I won’t hold back. First of all, the setting was suffocating; imagine Wes Anderson’s obsessive attention to detail in Life Aquatic transferred first to a middle-class suburban house absolutely soaked in garish 70’s prints and later to a ramshackle pink mansion in the outskirts of Northampton. In the decrepit mansion, dishes weren’t just messy, they were meticulously messy. Every speck of dust, every disheveled blanket, and each bit of squalor seemed to be painstakingly rendered in such a way as to take as much attention away from the narrative as possible.
That distraction almost seemed purposeful, a way to distract the audience from Murphy’s inability to recreate the essence of the book. Indeed, instead of dealing with the psychic damage inflicted upon Burroughs with irreverence, as the memoir managed so effortlessly, Murphy seeks to extract every last motherfucking bit of pathos out of Burroughs’ story. His version of Scissors is a freaking Meryl Streep movie, a Beaches-inspired hack job that wills you to weep with fucking Hamburger Helper and an “epiphanic” destruction of a kitchen ceiling to the tune of Al Stewart’s “Year of the Cat.” I mean, c’mon man! A roomful of whack jobs scrutinizing a bowel movement for signs from God is hilarious. But Murphy doesn’t really allow that humor to linger, opting instead to see the Finches as pathetic and Augusten as above it all and headed for something else. That may have been true, but in his writing he was never rueful or condescending about it.
Aside from the unnecessary attention to detail, the relative absence of force in the major character, and the muddled translation, Running with Scissors is also kind of dull, filled too often with stillness instead of the crackly fluidity of the memoir. Deirdre’s criticism of another poet’s work, in fact, offers a suitable summation of the film as a whole: “It implodes into nothingness. I was bored.”
Same here, sister. Same here.
Dustin Rowles is the publisher of Pajiba. He is currently halfway through a three-year ‘sentence’ in upstate, NY, where he lives with his wife. You may email him, or leave a comment below.
Running with Scissors / Dustin Rowles
Film | October 27, 2006 | Comments ()