Though it's based on a true story, Running with Scissors lacks the ring of truth. Operating on the old chestnut that life is comic and tragic in pretty much equal measure, Ryan Murphy's directorial debut pulls every bit of the freaky-deaky insanity out of Augusten Burroughs' memoir, but a disproportionate amount of the book's pathos. On the page, Burrough's coming-of-age tale has a horrible black-and-white truth, but blown up onto film, what should be menacing becomes glib and what should be confusing becomes obvious.
With period gloss and Scorsesean use of pop music, Murphy emphasizes the style of the '70s as young Augusten—embodied from ages thirteen to sixteen by Joseph Cross (Flags of Our Fathers)—navigates the dark forest of his dysfunctional upbringing. Mom Deirdre (Annette Bening) is a drama queen endlessly shilling her self-published pamphlet "A Poet's Struggle"; Dad (Alec Baldwin)'s an inward-turning souse.
It's no wonder that Augusten—who loves his mother unconditionally—emulates her fantasies of a more glamorous life. He plans to have his own hair empire, but the lengths to which he goes to maintain his shiny, happy fantasy (from boiling loose change to determined truancy) prefigure an adolescent crash. Things become worse than he could possibly imagine when Deirdre falls in with a therapist named Dr. Finch (Brian Cox), whose counseling swiftly dissolves the Burroughs' marriage.
As mom embarks on a lesbian reawakening, Augusten unhappily becomes the ward of Dr. Finch and his disturbed brood: disconcertingly disconnected wife Agnes (Jill Clayburgh) and two daughters, the unpredictably peevish Hope (Gwyneth Paltrow) and mischevious Natalie (Evan Rachel Wood). Their days of whine and poses mostly make Augusten's life a living hell, though Natalie conspires to make their life bearable through acting out, whether playing with her dad's electroshock machine or punching holes in the kitchen ceiling.
The creepy, kooky tone of Burroughs' incarceration with a family of loons sends the picture into the stratosphere. In a bad way. Mrs. Finch munches dog kibble and watches Dark Shadows. Dr. Finch proudly offers tours of his Masturbatorium. And their ramshackle manse looks like a carefully art-directed cross of Wes Anderson's Tenenbaum apartment and the Addams Family house—every bit of lawn-strewn garbage, musty carpet and dirty wallpaper is just so. And while the dialogue and acting are never overtly bad, they carry the unmistakably arch, deadpan-absurdist tone of a Christopher Durang play, which makes the purportedly true story seem like a grim fairy tale for adults.
Bening almost saves the picture with her searing psychological cocktail of madness and self-absorption, but she too succumbs to Murphy's ironic remove in the film's bulk of overtly comic scenes (the Academy should sift her late-picture mental crash from screaming heebie-jeebies to haggard numbness for a properly horrifying Oscar clip). As a reactive, emotive pivot point for the lunacy, Cross fits the bill, and as his schizophrenic, ambiguous lover/statutory rapist, Joseph Fiennes turns his headlights up to full-mooniness (Murphy reserves rare restraint for the parting of the two characters).
Running With Scissors traces a boy's sad journey from effervescence to cynicism to hope of deliverance, and some will happily rummage through the irony to locate a kind of grace. But it's difficult to feel empathy while we can sense Murphy proudly giggling with delight behind the camera—with its compulsive theatricality, Running With Scissors enacts what may be the most unpleasant brand of insanity in a film full of them.
[For Groucho's interview with Augusten Burroughs, click here.]