The royally screwed-up adolescence of Augusten Burroughs has made it to the bigscreen with several nips, tucks and a noticeably duller edge in “Running With Scissors.” Writer-director Ryan Murphy strives mightily to capture the bracing hilarity, pathos and surreal incident of Burroughs’ bestselling memoir, but this rudderless adaptation never gets a firm grip on the author’s deadpan tone or episodic narrative style. With critical attention likely to focus less on the film than the strong individual performances, specifically Annette Bening’s monstrously entertaining turn as Burroughs’ mother, Sony may have difficulty luring niche audiences beyond the book’s estimable readership.
Published to great acclaim in 2002, “Running With Scissors” all but rewrote the book on traumatic childhoods with its tale of parental abandonment, mental illness, pedophilia and the most idiosyncratic foster family this side of the Royal Tenenbaums. Yet Burroughs’ distinct comic voice, his ability to relate the wackiest events imaginable in dryly matter-of-fact prose, also managed to neutralize any traces of self-pity.
That voice proves maddeningly elusive here, despite the first-person narration that poses a question at the outset: “Where do I begin to tell the story of how my mother left me, and then I left her?”
First scene is set in the Burroughs’ Massachusetts home in 1972, with 7-year-old Augusten (Jack Kaeding) listening attentively to his mother, Deirdre (Bening), read a poem she plans to submit to the New Yorker. Bening’s recitation immediately suggests qualities that become more pronounced in Deirdre throughout the film — her futile dreams of a successful writing career, her smothering narcissism and her need to draw strength from her son, to the point of treating him as little more than an adoring fan.
Six years later, as her marriage to Augusten’s alcoholic father Norman (a stoic Alec Baldwin) deteriorates, Deirdre begins seeing a therapist, Dr. Finch (Brian Cox), known for his unusual and progressive methods. The couple’s spiteful joint sessions don’t forestall their inevitable divorce, but Deirdre continues to visit the doctor with Augusten (now played by Joseph Cross), who is fascinated by this odd, Santa Claus-like figure.
The film begins its descent into the rabbit hole when mother and son visit Dr. Finch’s home, a ramshackle Victorian house with shocking-pink exteriors and rooms strewn with garbage, arcane memorabilia and other bizarre odds and ends (superbly outfitted by production designer Richard Sherman).
No less eccentric are the house’s inhabitants: Dr. Finch’s wife Agnes (Jill Clayburgh), who watches “Dark Shadows” and eats kibble; his older daughter Hope (Gwyneth Paltrow), who makes every decision by pointing at a word in the Bible at random and interpreting it accordingly; and fiery younger daughter Natalie (Evan Rachel Wood), whose heavy eye shadow signals her more rebellious nature.
Deirdre and Dr. Finch abruptly inform Augusten he will be staying with the doctor indefinitely while Deirdre recovers from her neuroses. Augusten soon comes to view the Finch family as his own. He befriends Dr. Finch’s thirtysomething adopted son, Neil Bookman (Joseph Fiennes, looking like a dark, mustachioed elf), and their relationship quickly turns sexual. It’s a sign of how strange his life has become that this registers as one of the story’s less shocking details, though the film’s sanitized depiction of their couplings is considerably less graphic and intense than the book’s.
Making his feature writing and helming debut, Murphy (the force behind FX’s plastic surgery drama “Nip/Tuck”) has pared Burroughs’ anecdotal tome down to a choice selection of humorous episodes, excising several characters.
Yet while individual scenes are memorable, the picture that emerges is more of a crazy-quilt (literally) than a cohesive drama. It’s a messy, discursive piece of work, capturing the freewheeling sense of life in the Finch household but never giving the characters’ deeper connections and psychological motivations their proper due.
As is often the case with filmed memoirs, the reduction of the narrator to just another figure robs the story of its most important voice. And while Cross makes an engaging and thoroughly believable Augusten, his performance is essentially reactive; the film rarely succeeds in getting under his skin.
Bening’s full-bodied performance, on the other hand, achieves a level of complexity and coherence that eludes the rest of the film. Modulating expertly between Deirdre’s self-pitying rationalizations and explosive fits of temper, the actress channels qualities she’s conveyed memorably in her previous roles, from her marital frustration in “American Beauty” to her self-absorbed love of play-acting in “Being Julia.” Thesp uses her voice to richly theatrical effect when reading Deirdre’s navel-gazing poetry, yet resists the temptation to either demonize or caricaturize her.
Other cast standouts are Cox, savoring every droll syllable as the alternately benign and threatening Dr. Finch; and Clayburgh, who brings a rich emotional life to the haggard, long-suffering Agnes. Her final scene with Augusten is immensely moving.
Strong tech credits feature a host of “Nip/Tuck” regulars, including editor Byron Smith; cinematographer Christopher Baffa, whose widescreen lensing is suitably on the dark side; Lou Eyrich, showing a zany sense of invention with the actors’ costumes; and James S. Levine, who penned the bittersweet score.
Though the soundtrack is smeared with period-appropriate tunes from the likes of Elton John, Bruce Springsteen, 10cc and Bill Evans, pic doesn’t overdo the ’70s ambience.