Writer/director Ryan Murphy (Nip/Tuck, Glee) brings Augusten Burroughs’ memoir to the big screen. Joseph Cross plays young Burroughs, a thirteen-year-old whose emotionally unstable mother hands him off to her therapist. Running with Scissors is primarily about Burroughs trying to fit in at the therapist’s bizarre household while learning to accept that his mother will never be what he needs her to be.
Annette Bening plays the mother, and it’s a good role for her. Bening is always great at playing conflicted characters whose temperaments can change on a dime. The character may not be all that redeeming in the end, but it certainly showcases the actor’s range. Brian Cox is humorous as the therapist, who is depicted as half genius and half crazy. At one point, he’s examining his own shit in the toilet bowl to predict the family finances. Joseph Fiennes plays one of Cox’s adopted family members, a wounded soul who seems on the brink of violence, and with whom Burroughs strikes up a sexual relationship. Gwyneth Paltrow is underutilized (and perhaps miscast) as Cox’s eldest daughter who hears voices in her head, while Evan Rachel Wood gets the meatier role of the younger daughter who becomes Burroughs’ confidante.
After Bening, however, my second favorite performance in the film comes from Jill Clayburgh as Cox’s downtrodden wife. Clayburgh’s character is introduced as a sad, mopey woman, but the script allows her to grow a pair when she decides she doesn’t want Bening seeing her husband anymore. And she also plays a key role in the film’s emotional climax.
Running with Scissors is based on a true story, but the characterizations are so extreme inside the therapist’s house that it sometimes pokes a hole in the story’s escalating drama. The willful blending of surreal characters in dramatic situations makes me feel like it also suffers a bit from wanting to be the next American Beauty. I recommend it for a few funny moments, but primarily for the performances of Ms. Bening and Ms. Clayburgh.
With Alec Baldwin and Kristin Chenoweth.