Personal cinema is in desperate shape. Amid the faceless, streamlined norms of moviemaking, films that carry legitimate human experience must be encouraged. But this counter-equation has resulted in a sheltered narcissism. The screen puts up with self-promoting artists. This deluded faith that one’s egotism will help others has resulted in everything from Tarnation to Super Size Me to Antwone Fisher.
Now Running with Scissors, adapted by Ryan Murphy from a memoir by central character Augusten Burroughs, continues the me-centricity. What’s missing behind Burroughs’ insistence that he led the most eccentric childhood on the block is a reason for anyone to care. Running with Scissors hasn’t the critical eye of Sunset Boulevard or The Rules of Attraction—movies that stared head-on at characters’ egotism. Played by Joseph Cross as a young teenager, Augusten tries to attain sympathy by being the only character who isn’t insane.
Following the break-up of his alcoholic father Norman (Alec Baldwin) and drama queen mother Dierdre (Annette Bening), Augusten looks elsewhere for a level upbringing. He moves in with his mother’s psychiatrist Dr. Finch (Brian Cox)—which is off to an unpromising start when it’s announced that his office contains a “masturbatorium.” Finch’s daughter Natalie (Evan Rachel Wood) tries to play doctor with the hero by giving him shock treatment. Dr. Finch later arranges a family meeting in his bathroom so they can examine what the shape of a a bowel movement means in relation to God.
Running with Scissors latches to the feel-good indie cliche of assuring viewers that normalcy doesn’t exist. Yet its precocity is conventional. All the would-be madness, such as older Finch daughter Hope (Gwyneth Paltrow) confessing to cooking the family cat in a stew, plays as desperate sideshow quirkiness. Even Bening’s breakdowns court freakiness at the expense of empathy. The excruciating display of bohemian spoils wears the word “delightful” in quotation marks, with a theatre accent.
How is a culture affected when a celebrity dies? The public took offense at the Royal Family not outwardly expressing sorrow at Princess Diana’s death. It wasn’t a case of the people being inspired by a dead artist’s work; the shock was that a stranger’s face they’d grown accustomed to had been violently removed from the world.
This celebrity-unification is the most interesting aspect of Stephen Frears’ The Queen. Had it been developed, it might have elevated the film near greatness. Instead, Frears feeds stargazer curiosity about how the monarchy behaves outside the camera’s eye. This gives Elizabeth II (Helen Mirren) a chance to confound the perception of her as an ever-grateful waving innocent. Her sardonic edge is a counterpoint to the idealistic portrait of Tony Blair (Michael Sheen), trying to get the Queen to speak publicly on the event, helping his Labour Party in the process. It’s all strongly performed, and smartly assembled in its scene-to-scene progression, despite Frears’ continued disinterest in visual filmmaking. Even the fateful motorcrash isn’t built up with impressionable dread.
Frears suffers the same problem as Phillip Noyce in his apartheid drama Catch a Fire: He recounts history without giving it a searing visual imprint. The balance of The Queen’s interests relegates it to admirable theatre, dismissable when it should be affecting.
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