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Running with Scissors

For a story about some genuinely, frighteningly crazy people, Running with Scissors (2006) is surprisingly bland. In its determination to make us realize just how nuts everyone in this '70s-set autobiographical tale is (it's based on writer Augusten Burroughs' memoirs), the movie falls victim to one of the most basic storytelling pitfalls: It tells instead of shows. Heavy-handed soundtrack cues, vintage costumes, and rooms overflowing with props can't disguise the fact that the characters, for all their bizarre quirks, don't have much depth. Part of that is probably due to screenwriter/director Ryan Murphy's desire to capture the full spectrum of Burroughs' (played by Joseph Cross) extraordinary childhood, which has more than enough material for several movies. It's an understandable ambition, but as a consequence, the movie is more a collection of scenes and moments than a cohesive narrative, and the characters don't have many chances to build on their basic personality traits. Not that the actors playing them don't try. Scissors' biggest strength is its cast, from Annette Bening as Augusten's larger-than-life mother, Deirdre (an aspiring poet with delusions of grandeur), to Brian Cox as Dr. Finch, the self-important psychiatrist that Deirdre ends up handing Austen over to while she focuses on reclaiming herself as an artist. It's while he's a virtual inmate in Dr. Finch's pink, chaotic, cluttered loony bin of a house that Augusten befriends Finch's rebellious daughter, Natalie (Evan Rachel Wood) and experiences many of the story's strangest moments, from watching Finch's wife, Agnes (Jill Clayburgh, in one of the film's only truly emotional performances), snack on dog kibble to listening as the doctor explains the near-Biblical significance of a particular bowel movement. And it's at the Finches that Augusten, a young teenager, meets and becomes romantically involved with Neil Bookman (Joseph Fiennes), an older man who's also been taken under Dr. Finch's wing. Those who've read Burroughs' book know that the reality of Augusten and Bookman's relationship was much more disturbing than the way it's depicted on screen — which highlights another of the movie's problems. As funny as Burroughs' memoir is, it's also harrowing and painful, and too much of that gets lost in the film. By using humor as the underlying current of the story — rather than as a bewildered, abandoned boy's only coping mechanism — Running with Scissors the movie loses both the momentum and the impact of the book. That said, the film looks and sounds good on Sony's DVD. The anamorphic transfer (2.40:1) is crisp and clean, and the Dolby Digital 5.1 audio is strong. The short list of extras includes three brief featurettes (the first is a behind-the-scenes overview, the second focuses on Burroughs the writer, and the third is about production and set design) and several previews for other films. Keep-case.
—Betsy Bozdech

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