The line between tragedy and comedy is a matter of knowing the whole story. Running with Scissors attempts to be a comedy about everyday life, but it falls somewhat flat; comedy requires redemption, but the film offers only feeble hope: escaping the pain of the past and moving on. The movie takes its story from a memoir of the same name written by Augusten Burroughs. Finding the humor in the trauma of reality was therapeutic in the real life Burroughs, who may have found happiness, but the film lacks the whole story needed to live up to its label as a comedy.
Augusten (Joseph Cross) grows up in dysfunctional home: his parents argue, his mother allows him to skip school, and his life starts to unravel. His parents eventually divorce, and his mother Deidre (Annette Bening), who is convinced she is a gifted writer, begins seeing a psychiatrist to search out her subconscious and find her hidden anger and creativity.
Augusten’s parents send their teenaged son to live with Deidre’s psychiatrist. As it turns out, the new family also has problems. Dr. Finch (Brian Cox) lives with his wife, who is lonely and a bit of a scatterbrain, and two daughters—uptight Hope (Gwyneth Paltrow) and carefree Natalie (Evan Rachel Wood). Augusten finds a friend in Natalie as they start to share their experiences of being lost and hurt by adults that ought to be responsible—adults that ought to take care of them. Eventually Augusten must make a choice: either he can stay with his family, or he can leave everything behind and start over in New York.
The comedy of the film is that Augusten continues to hang on to hope. The tragedy is that his hope never takes on real life and never allows him to glimpse at the healing that comes from confessing one’s failures. His mother remains ever stoic, removed from actions that have caused so much hurt to both her and her son. The only resolution that Augusten can find is to express and put his life into words, in the hopes that this self-expression will be enough in order for him to find himself and to live differently than his crazy past.
While Running with Scissors lacks a coherent narrative and celebrates eccentricity for its own sake, it does understand a certain part of the human condition. The film is able to show how life in a fallen world is always a tension between wanting to laugh at the absurdity and craziness of life and crying because of the pain and hurt that permeates the human experience. The film contains moments of amusing absurdity: a lawn covered with dishes getting a moon bath, a house painted completely pink. But it also contains moments of poignancy: Natalie’s recounting of the pain that came from trusting those who should have loved her, Augusten’s 15th birthday when he realizes that his mother has sunken into depression.
There is a great moment near the end of the film where each character simply screams, reminiscent of the sequence in Magnolia that brings the vignettes together. Each character comes to a place where there is nothing left to do but to scream at the world, calling out in the hope that someone, somewhere will send love and healing into their lives. It is tragic that none of them ever gets a response. Each is left hopeless; escape and sadness become the only options.