Hollywood loves to write about therapists who are more screwed up than their patients. Maybe that’s because most Hollywood writers and directors are in therapy and want to feel better about themselves, I don’t know. Anyway, both of these films from Sony Pictures and from writer/directors, put their coming-of-age male leads in therapy with people who are, shall we say, practicing “out of the box.” In The Wackness, Luke Shapiro (Josh Peck) trades marijuana for shrink sessions in New York in 1994, and in Running with Scissors, Augusten Burroughs (Joseph Cross) moves in with his family’s therapist in the 1970s. Have these movies pushed the boundaries of therapy too far to seem believable? If therapy was this messed up in the recent past, how bad is it now? And our Smackdown question: If you have to see a shrink, do you want a referral from someone who runs drugs or who runs with scissors?
The title of the film comes from a line that Juno darling, Olivia Thirlby, says to Josh Peck — “You’re the wackness and I’m the dopeness” — which is basically an overly cool way to say that Peck’s a pessimist. (Not as much as the film’s cinematographer, who lit the film like he couldn’t afford a lighting package.) Anyway, The Wackness gives us Luke Shapiro, in the summer before he goes away to college, with a lot to be pessimistic about. In this film, writer/director Jonathan Levine lingers over the fact that he’s masturbating seven times a day, dreaming about real sex and dealing drugs out of an ice cream cart in New York City to make some coin. Oh, yeah — he’s looking for love, too. Shapiro is trying to get a grip on life because his parents are fighting over losing their apartment, and he never made any friends in high school. He finds solace in his pot client and therapist, Doctor Squires (Ben Kingsley), who gives a string of unusual advice that probably goes beyond the Hippocratic Oath. In any case, Shapiro follows Squires’ advice about losing his virginity, only he does it with Dr. Squires’ stepdaughter, Stephanie (Olivia Thirlby). Kingsley and Peck give stellar performances as men with no coping skills to deal with the matters of life and love besides escaping through drug use. It might even be enlightening if it hadn’t been shot so damned dark.
The Defending Champion
The title of this film actually comes from the best-selling autobiography written in 2002. Running with Scissors brings to life Augusten Burrough’s experiences growing up in the ’70s with an emotionally unstable mother who divorces his alcoholic father and seeks the help of an unorthodox and creepy Dr. Finch. The premise of this film, written and directed by Ryan Murphy, might seem pretty farfetched given that Augusten moves into Dr. Finch’s weirdly decorated house, which is also filled with the weirdest people, like Jill Clayburgh, who plays mother Finch and eats kibble — yet this film is based on true events. Augusten has to deal with the fact that he is surrounded by unstable people, including Dr. Finch’s other adopted 35-year old son Neil Bookman (Joseph Fiennes), who Augusten enters into a sexual relationship with at the age of 15. Although the main character doesn’t turn to a mix of drug use and therapy, he might as well have by turning to the Finch family as his drug of choice — dysfunction.
While The Wackness takes place just a bit over a decade ago, the backdrop of the 1990s coats the characters and locations with an unusual glaze. Luke Shapiro has a summer to remember by dealing with grownup matters like losing his childhood home, his parents’ rocky marriage, losing his virginity, and falling in love. On the other hand, Augusten in Running with Scissors has to deal with all of those same issues, but in the 1970s.
Both films use therapy as a way of dealing with all those issues but in an indirect way. Shapiro forms a bond with his therapist over drugs, women, and music outside of his office, which makes him ultimately become a man. However, Augusten forms a bond with his mother’s psychiatrist’s family by moving in with them. After two years with a more broken home than the one he started off with, Augusten also finally becomes a man. Both characters live unbelievable lives through their connections to unusual people and strange events, but one is based in truth and the other based in a made-up indie reality.
I think the performances in The Wackness, from Mary Kate Olsen’s cameo as a drugged-out hippie to Ben Kingsley as the coolest “old guy” in New York, are the exact reason the film took home the Sundance Audience Award. But aside from the performances, the story of a kid casually dealing marijuana to everyone in New York because he was a loser in high school seems unbelievable,
and not in a good way. That’s why I’ve got to go with Running with Scissors, a film that is so unbelievable in every way but adapted from a true story.
Running with Scissors was not a critic’s choice and not even an audience award winner either, but it is a film that any person watching gets instantly pulled into by wanting to understand the psychology behind every character and motive. So save yourself money on going to the theater (and by going to see a psychologist) and instead get DVD therapy by renting Running with Scissors.