Augusten Burroughs’s memoirs and books of essays are really popular. Probably. Right? I think that’s true. People buy them and they are best-sellers, and then they get turned into movies, or whatever. So, congratulations to him. I have never read any of his books, although I tried one time. I read the first essay of one of his books (not Running with Scissors) and I found the whole thing so phony that I threw the book out the window. That’s not true! I simply stopped reading it, and probably placed the book back on the bookshelf. But saying that you got so fed up with a book that you threw it out the window is exactly the kind of phoniness that I found throughout his writing, in the one short thing I read. People don’t really throw books out of windows when they’re fed up with them, they just put them away. I did throw a garbage can out a window one time, but that’s because it had a live bat in it and I was scared and it’s a whole other story anyway. Augusten Burroughs got famous on the David Sedaris wave of not really very funny at all people who threw bad jokes into over-exaggerated stories about their childhood and read them on NPR a lot. Remember that wave? It took place from, like, 1994 until yesterday, and it was terrible. At least David Sedaris was genuinely funny (before he started writing thin allegories about, like, turtles smoking cigarettes or whatever he does now). The whole memoir thing seemed to kind of track with the whole reality TV thing, as if our garbage television necessitated that we now read garbage books. This ended with the James Frey implosion, which is not to say that memoirs are not still big business, or that people are not still reading terrible books, but, you know, A Million Little Pieces are our generation’s literary 9/11. (GOOD ANALOGY.) The point is: I wasn’t a fan of Augusten Burroughs BEFORE seeing this movie, and this movie sure didn’t change that.
Running with Scissors is based on the Augusten Burroughs memoir of the same name, and is about a young man named, wait for it, Augusten Burroughs, coming of age in the late 1970s. His mom (Annette Bening) is a delusional, narcissistic, would-be poet and his dad is Alec Baldwin.
Annette Bening and Alec Baldwin fight all the time, which is hard for young Augusten, because he just wants to be a hairdresser. One night (really? night?) a doctor (Brian Cox) comes to the house to examine Augusten’s mother. He starts giving her valium. Sure. Then he basically, like, forces her and Alec Baldwin to get a divorce. Oh, he is a real character, by the way. Then he makes Augusten’s mom move into a motel. Meanwhile, Augusten is forced to move into his weird house with his weird family. Eventually, the doctor legally adopts him, and Augusten’s mom becomes a lesbian, and Augusten is gay now with a guy with a handlebar moustache, and he also fakes his own suicide to drop out of high school on the doctor’s recommendation. The movie ends with him saying goodbye to his mess of a mom, and the weird, down-trodden, dog-food-eating wife of the doctor giving him a tin can full of money and him getting on a bus to New York City to become a writer. Fine.
Let’s back up a second.
The story of a young man being abandoned by his mother into the mildly eccentric family of a psychiatrist right as he is coming into his own is an interesting story! It makes sense that Augusten Burroughs would write a memoir about something like that and that it would be successful. It follows that Hollywood would then adapt that memoir into a movie. Got it. We’re all on the same page here. The problem is that the story is so intense and outlandish on its own, that all of the “quirky” embellishments come off as patently false and very annoying. Like, when the doctor first comes over to the house, Annette Bening asks him if she can get him anything, coffee or tea? He says “I would like some cold bologna slices with a side of horseradish.”
THE END. TAKE THIS DVD OUT AND SNAP IT OVER DAVID EDELSTEIN’S KNEE.
Look, I’m sorry, I know that people come in all shapes and sizes and that real life is crazier than any fiction we could ever come up with, but you’re not going to convince me that a doctor came over to a house in the middle of the night no less and when confronted with the offer of coffee or tea he said that he wanted “cold bologna slices with a side of horseradish.” BOLOGNA IS RIGHT! That NEVER HAPPENED. Even if it happened, it never happened, if you catch my meaning. Like, sometimes there are things that happen in this life that don’t actually make for good stories because they are too weird and unlikely. But also that didn’t actually happen. Come on. (It is worth noting that I watched very carefully during the following scene to see if he actually ate the cold bologna slices with a side of horseradish–which she of course just had and gave to him no questions asked?–and he did not touch them. I HATE IT.)
The rest of the movie is more of the same: one “weird” moment to the next, constantly testing your willful suspension of disbelief, which happens in lots of movies, but is particularly weird for a movie that is supposedly based on real life. The story itself is believable enough: sure, it’s not every day that a son is unceremoniously passed off on an eccentric family because the mother is too drugged up and self-obsessed to care, but I can certainly believe that has happened at least this once. It’s all the other details that ring false. They’re constantly throwing the book out the window when they could simply stop reading it and place it on the shelf.
Most of the “movie” parts of the movie are fine! All of the acting is pretty decent, even Gwyneth Paltrow, who plays the older, eccentric daughter of the eccentric doctor. The tone and pacing and cinematography are all done in the completely unoriginal but compelling enough style of post-Wes Anderson, post-Spike Jonze, post-Guy Ritchie cinema. Plenty of decently constructed “indie-quirk” moments. The movie was directed by Ryan Murphy, who created Glee and who also directed Eat, Pray, Love. This guy really needs a Source Material Choosing Coach to teach him how to choose better source material! Although, there is the pre-requisite movie that discusses mental health in any way screaming scene:
And overstuffed medicine cabinet scene:
But, the movie’s fundamental problems come from, one must assume, Augusten Burroughs himself. It’s worth noting that after the book came out, he was sued by the family for defamation. They settled out of court, and the book was recategorized from a memoir to a “book.” (Haha. “A book.”) The thing is, even in the movie’s depiction of a Hoarders house full of lunatics, it is still quite clear that people in the fictionalized version of the family genuinely cared about Augusten. You will remember that the movie ends with the other mom, who did more for him as a mother than his real mother did, giving him her life savings so that he could pursue his dream. The family accepted and encouraged his homosexuality, the children took him in as a brother, every indulgence and allowance was made. That doesn’t mean that he didn’t still feel some sort of alienation from a family that was not his own, but to turn around and describe them all as such intense weirdos and creeps certainly suggests a lack of appreciation and basic respect. Kind of a dick move! There’s also the part where Augusten Burroughs changed his name to Augusten Burroughs (nee Christopher Robison), which is not included in the movie, but is the type of thing where if someone is so intense about self-creation and the rewriting of the past as to legally change their name, who knows where the line between truth and fiction lies. (In the movie, his mom’s name is Deirdre, but in real life his mom’s name is Margaret. Why? What is this, then?)
In the Wikipedia description of the memoir, which again, I fully admit to not having read, there is stuff about the doctor maybe raping Augusten’s mother, and also the suggestion which is only loosely alluded to in the movie of Augusten being molested and forced into a sexual relationship before he’s ready. These are very dark and intense revelations/accusations/whatever you want to call them. The fact that they were mostly scrubbed from the movie in order to make the movie more appealing to a general audience makes you kind of wonder what the point of the movie is in the first place. If a memoir is a loose remembering and subjective reinterpretation of actual events, then what is a sanitized and fictionalized movie adaptation of that memoir? I will tell you: A MESS.