As a young child, I memorized facts about machines of death. At the age of three, it was my wont to inform elders that the North American Aviation P-51 Mustang fighter plane was powered by a supercharged Rolls-Royce Merlin V-12 and equipped with six .50 caliber Browning M2 machine guns. Twisted, perhaps, but heavenly.
This childhood idyll of memorizing thermonuclear kilotonnage, however, was interrupted by a disastrous encounter between a toy chest and my front tooth. Long story short, my tooth turned a strange color, and I was forced to get a root canal – a painful and traumatic experience that resolved itself in the acquisition of a new Lego Sopwith Camel biplane fighter.
Roughly speaking, the narrative of my experience as 3-year-old is analogous to the plotline of “Running With Scissors” – a film adaptation of Augusten Burroughs’ 2002 bestselling memoir. The film opens to the happy-though-bizarre home life of 6-year-old Augusten, the son of Deirdre Burroughs (Annette Bening), an aspiring-but-abominable poet. As Deirdre’s literary failures multiply, her crazed dependence on Augusten’s fawning attention increases, along with her estrangement from alcoholic husband Norman (Alec Baldwin). When Deirdre finally decides to seek help, she calls upon quack psychiatrist Dr. Finch (Brian Cox), whose prescription seems to be divorce, drug-addiction and doctor-patient motel-room sex.
Thus begins Deirdre’s descent into the depths of drug-fueled psychopathy. After divorcing her husband, Deirdre foists Augusten (Joseph Cross), by this time in his teens, off on Dr. Finch and his family. The long, dragging, root canal-like middle section of the 116-minute-long movie is an endless (though often funny) cataloguing of the Finches’ Freudian idiosyncrasies, the family’s strange internal dynamics and Augusten’s misadventures as a member of the household – including his May and December relationship with 33-year-old pederast Neil Bookman (Joseph Feinnes). The movie concludes, after a series of ill-fated attempts at reconciliation between Augusten and his mother, with the young protagonist taking off for New York and a successful career in writing. After the painful process of root canal, Augusten too winds up with his Sopwith Camel.
For those of familiar with the book’s graphic accounts of gay sex and eager for some on-screen “Brokeback” action, the film version of “Running With Scissors” is a major disappointment. The movie’s sex scenes are about as steamy as the separate-bed shenanigans of Rob and Laura Petrie on “The Dick Van Dyke Show.” This cinematic prudishness underlies what is perhaps the film’s biggest shortcoming: its failure to deal with sexuality in anything more than a superficial way. Teenage Augusten simply leaps out of the closet in a painfully acted dialogue between Cross and Evan Rachel Wood (playing Finch’s younger daughter, Natalie), and Deirdre’s post-divorce lesbianism is likewise fantastically superficial.
In something of a Wes Anderson vein, however, “Running With Scissors” is easy on the eyes and ears. Director Ryan Murphy moves from one beautifully rendered scene to the next, and the soundtrack (including selections from Elton John and The 5th Dimension) wonderfully complements both the scenery and the movement of the story. If only the story itself moved as seamlessly. Murphy’s storyline is jerky and disjointed, while the dialogue is at best mildly clever and at worst dismally trite. The film climaxes with a voice-over soliloquy by Augusten on the importance of limitation and order in life, but falls flat as it writhes in a kind of perverted “Saved by the Bell” morality.
I was not overwhelmed by “Running With Scissors.” Brilliant performances by a spectacular cast and exceptional cinematography could not save it from the pitfalls of poor writing and superficiality.