Edward Scissorhands (1990) / Fantasy-Romance
MPAA Rated: PG-13 for violence, language and some sensuality
Running time: 105 min.
Cast: Johnny Depp, Dianne Wiest, Winona Ryder, Alan Arkin, Anthony Michael Hall, Kathy Baker, Vincent Price, Robert Oliveri, Conchata Ferrell, Dick Anthony Williams, O-Lan Jones
Director: Tim Burton
Screenplay: Caroline Thompson
Review published July 27, 2008
Johnny Depp (A Nightmare on Elm Street, Arizona Dream) stars as Edward, a synthetic representation of a young man created by a bizarre inventor who died shortly before his transformation from mechanical construct to organic seeming human could be complete, leaving him permanently with hands that resemble several pairs of scissors. All alone in the world in a large and foreboding house overlooking a quaint small town, Edward finally makes human contact again when visited by Peg (Wiest, Bright Lights Big City), a busy body housewife selling Avon products door to door. She immediately shows the lad some sympathy, willing to take him into her home, where he immediately charms the family with his helpfulness and earnestness, and soon the entire neighborhood is abuzz with his interesting topiary landscaping of their bushes and shrubs with his scissor-like appendages, as well as his grooming of their pets. However, not everyone is keen on Edward's attention, as a zealous Christian preacher sees him as coming from the devil, and Jim (Hall, Johnny Be Good), the boyfriend of Peg's daughter, Kim (Ryder, Heathers), wants him out of the picture for good.
I feel the need to tread carefully, as I realize that there are some viewers who truly cherish this movie. I can understand why to a certain degree, as there are some moments that do transcend above the simple story to become artistic, and it is to those scenes that I am ultimately giving my recommendation. I certainly wouldn't deride the opinion of anyone who considers it a personal favorite. I tend to like many aspects about it myself, while others are found either disappointing or left wanting.
As much as I like key moments, unfortunately, as a story, Edward Scissorhands remains too uneven for me to be wholeheartedly enthusiastic. Starting off with the scenes of an older Kim that bookend the main story, there is a sense of time and place that feels a bit off. What time period is the film set? Assuming that Kim is in her twilight years, and that the events in the town aren't too far from 1990, the year of the film's release (the cars, clothes and hair styles suggest a contemporary setting), this means that the film is actually science fiction with the body of the tale told in flashback mode. I don't think that director Tim Burton (Batman, Beetlejuice) had been going for that vibe, working from a script by Caroline Thompson (The Addams Family, The Nightmare Before Christmas). One gets the sense from the script's homage to the 1950s or 1960s suburbia that Thompson, working with a story she conceived of with Burton, might have meant for the film to be set in that era (references to taping TV shows, CD players, etc.), but it isn't. It's possible that the budget didn't warrant it, or perhaps Burton didn't think it important, but it sure would have gone a long way to making it more thematically resonant than the present-day depiction.
For much of the film, Edward Scissorhands plays as a comedy. There are an array of cute scenes where we find our confused hero bonding with the community through his artistic flourishes, pruning the trees and bushes into some very interesting forms, and beautifying the local ladies hairstyles. These scenes are entertaining, though ominous harbingers come into play. Edward's scars suggest some difficulties in his past, and his meek nature one of wishing to be like everyone else, but not quite able to fully assimilate.
As interesting, and even though provoking, as Burton's film is during these scenes, the final half hour of darkness just doesn't feel right for the material. It's not that the events wouldn't presumably happen, it's that Burton doesn't set up for them properly, A gun is brandished at some point by one of the main characters, though the reasons why this person has a weapon and would want to use it is beyond my ability to understand with so motivation little given in the story, especially as Edward is, for all practical purposes, banished (and presumed dead). The result almost feels like Thompson and Burton didn't know where to go once the main premise had been conceived, needing a "Frankenstein"-esque conflict to push the film from a series of cute moments to one of deep meaning. I suppose that some won't mind the schism in the narrative, as Burton's film tend to run more on artistic feeling than logic. I can't quite agree with these sentiments, and I'd say the film as a whole could have used a bit more structure in the storyline, as it really does feel like a series of disjointed scenes that never really come together to drive the high concepts home.
When the gorgeous score by Danny Elfman (Darkman, Dick Tracy) works in unison with Burton's imagery, Edward Scissorhands does manage to become rousing from a cinematic standpoint. It's easy to have a bit of nostalgia for a movie that gives you a certain feeling or evokes a mood because of it, and I'm guessing that when most people think back to the film, they remember these moments much more than the ones that didn't work quite so well. Evidence of this comes from those who describe Edward Scissorhands as one of the better family films of the 1990s, without remembering that this so-called family film has two deaths, an attempted murder, criminal behavior, a racy scene one could construe as akin to attempted statutory rape, and some potent commentary on religious zealotry. While Burton may leave things light most of the time, he wasn't exactly trying to make a heartwarming film for grandma and little Joey to enjoy, particularly as the film goes down a dark and deadly path.
I suppose that a movie that gives many people such fond memories is at least worthy of a viewing. After all, the only thing we're left with after a movie has ended (or, really, anything else we do) are the memories of the experience. Films that have a great deal of imagery and beautiful music tend to be more fondly remembered than those that are driven by dialogue and adept characterizations. I'm guessing it's for the handful or so of scenes when Burton touches on something beautiful or profound that people rave about when discussing this film, and not for the clunky storyline, nonsensical character actions, and nearly nonexistent plotting. I've written a few reviews where I've commented about them being great films with not-so-great moments, but I think that Edward Scissorhands is the converse explanation, which is that it is a collection of great moments put into a not-so-great film. It's a few very interesting ideas and a compellingly sympathetic Depp portrayal, set to sumptuous scoring and surreal imagery, but just doesn't come across like a finished, fully realized project. Like Edward himself, we know that the product was released before it could be fully formed, but there's enough goodness inside the pathetic vessel to feel empathy, flaws and all.
©2008 Vince Leo