Friday, 2 February 2007

Running with Scissors - Review by James Martin

Director: Ryan Murphy
Screenwriter: Ryan Murphy
Running Time: 116 mins
Certificate: 15
Released: now

Running with scissors, set in 1979, is black comedy at its darkest. Director Ryan Murphy strikes just the right balance in the film, which is both hilarious and touching. This movie is preoccupied with the idea that life can leave you with deep emotional scars, as painful as those acquired from performing the titular act. Augusten Burroughs (Joseph Cross) is sent to live with eccentric 'shrink' Dr Finch (Brian Cox) and his family, while his highly strung, arty-farty mother, Dierdre (Annette Bening) undergoes treatment from this doctor for depression. Meet the family; batty Mrs Finch (Jill Clayburgh) snacks on dried pet food and the 'favourite' daughter, Hope (Gwyneth Paltrow) considers herself telepathic, 'conversing mentally' with her cat, Freud. Hippy-chick, Natalie (Evan Rachel Wood), the 'other' daughter is rejected by Augusten, as he 'comes out' and starts dating 35 year old Neil (Joseph Fiennes); another of Dr Finch's mentally unstable patients. Meanwhile, Augusten's mother Dierdre goes through a succession of lesbian lovers, while sliding ever further down the slope of instability.

Bening as Dierdre Burroughs is one of the film's greatest assets. This type of character is her forte. The acting is reminiscent of her previous roles, Catherine de Merteuil in Valmont (1989) and the screeching harpy, Carolyn Burnham in American Beauty (1999) and she leaves her syrupy, sweet performance in The American President (1995) in the shade. Dierdre is tempestuous and does a highly convincing nervous breakdown, chewing candle wax at Augusten's 15th birthday party, while mumbling "this is good!" Amusing as this scene may be, Augusten's character invokes pity, as the camera closes in on him to show a stream of tears flooding down his heartbroken face. The musical score couldn't be more seventies if it tried, and never leaves the viewer in any doubt about how to feel. When the mood is upbeat, there is jazzy piano music and at more intimate or tear-jerking moments, love songs by stars like Johnny Mathis are played. However, music is never used as the easy way out of portraying genuine emotion, which sweats out of every character in bucket loads.

Equally well done are wacky performances from Dr Finch's family. Long suffering Mrs Finch serves fish sticks and grapes for dinner, as she exclaims; "I am not a maid!" Brian Cox is excellent as the calm, collected but crackpot doctor, who never looses his cool, even in the face of unnecessary destruction. Augusten and Natalie wanted to 'heighten the ceiling' and earnestly, he replies "I think it brings a much-needed sense of humour to the kitchen." However, the crazy touches of humour never spin out of control, rather they are kept in check throughout by an overwhelming sense of sadness. This comes partly from Augusten and his goateed, schizophrenic lover (Fiennes), neither of whom feel able to 'fit in' in society.

All in all, this is an impeccably directed film, which never goes too far and is a pleasure to watch, for all its touching moments and instances of sheer, unbridled hilarity. However, Running with Scissors is like marmite in that it might not be everyone's cup of tea. Some might really enjoy this unusual cinematic experience, whereas others might be put-off by its quirkiness or find it verges 'too close to home.' In any case, the film, based on Augusten Burroughs' 2002 autobiography has a powerful message. Running with scissors can leave deep, painful scars, but just as you would learn from this experience, never to run with scissors again, metaphorically you can learn not to repeat similar, emotional experiences in life and learn from your mistakes.
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