The dysfunctional family has been a cinematic mainstay ever since The Marx Brothers first stumbled into view of a prying lens. From black and white to yellow (The Simpsons), it’s been with us for years, telling stories of joy and despair in equal measure.
Adapted from Augusten Burroughs’ traumatising memoir (first published in 2002), Running With Scissors tries to see the funny side of an unsettled teenhood, but the dark issues that surrounded him and the people in his life – mental illness, alcoholism, drug addiction, statutory rape, neglect – end up casting too dark a shadow to let the light shine through.
The son of alcoholic dad Norman (Alec Baldwin) and loopy mum Deirdre (Annette Bening), the surprisingly sane Burroughs (Joseph Cross) was packed off as a teen to therapist Dr Finch (Brian Cox). Wisely taking it upon himself to record his increasingly twisted tales of madness, the strength of Burroughs’ bestselling book (and the reason it perhaps inevitably begged a film adaptation) lies in the people he met. There’s the said boozy dad and neglectful mum, and then there’s the filthy squalor of the family therapist’s home he’s dumped at. Meet Dr Finch’s near-mute, long-suffering wife Agnes (Jill Claybourgh), his sex-obsessed teenage daughter Natalie (Evan Rachel Wood), oddball eldest daughter Hope (Gwyneth Paltrow), schizophrenic fellow-resident Neil (Joseph Fiennes)... plus a menagerie of eccentric pets.
It’s a cast of characters that, on paper at least, manage to raise a smile as well as an eyebrow. But in the book, it’s Burroughs’ bemused-yet-positive, wide-eyed, hopeful-in-the-face-of-adversity voice that brings relief to his otherwise torturous tale. Writer/director Ryan Murphy, however – best known as creator/writer/director of camp plastic surgeon dramedy Nip/Tuck – struggles to realise that voice visually. Instead of laughing, you’re often left begging for someone to pick up the phone and call Social Services.
That aside, Bening excels as the movie’s driving force, and as you watch her character go from doting to deranged you can see why there’s Oscar buzz (and a Golden Globe nod) for her nuanced performance. The rest of the cast do a fine job in trying to keep up, but ultimately Running With Scissors fails to cut a neat line between comedy and drama.