Perhaps on the printed page Augusten Burrough’s memoir about his highly unconventional upbringing had a measure of charm to balance the weirdness and a degree of likableness to mitigate the generally sour mood, but if so it’s been lost in the translation to the screen by writer-director Ryan Murphy (the creator of the cable TV series “Nip/Tuck”). “Running With Scissors” is nothing but an avalanche of eccentricity without any redeeming comic or dramatic virtues. You can feel it straining for a Wes Anderson, “Royal Tenenbaums” sort of magic and conspicuously failing to achieve it. It’s one of the most grating, irritating movies you’re likely to see all year.
When we first meet young Augusten (played by tot Jack Kaeding), he’s a precocious tyke devoted to his histrionic mother Deirdre (Annette Bening), who dreams of being a poet published in The New Yorker despite an utter lack of talent; his odd interest in hairdressing and boiling the quarters in his allowance money to make them shiny also bewilders his brooding, alcoholic father Norman (Alec Baldwin). Flash forward a few years and the Burroughs are trapped in a scorpions-in-a-bottle marriage while Augusten (now lanky Joseph Cross) watches their battles in horror. Deirdre’s decision to take the family problems to oddball shrink Finch (Brian Cox), notable for his peculiar theories and deliberately shocking questions, shatters the fragile coupling, and before long his now-divorced, even more unstable (and heavily medicated) mother has dumped the boy with Finch and his eerie brood–wife Agnes (Jill Clayburgh), a mousy type who spends all her time watching the vampire soap opera “Dark Shadows” and eating dogfood; snooty older daughter Hope (Gwyneth Paltrow); sultry, lascivious younger daughter Natalie (Evan Rachel Wood), who comes on to Augusten; and schizophrenic son Neil (Joseph Fiennes), who soon confesses that he’s gay and becomes Augusten’s lover. And Deirdre doesn’t remain alone for long; Finch couples her up with another patient, imperious Dorothy (Gabrielle Union), after Deirdre’s affair with a married member of her poetry club, squeal-prone Fern (Kristin Chenoweth), goes south.
The relationships among this human menagerie shoot off in all sorts of directions. The fact that the characters act toward one another in unpredictable ways is good, because at least it keeps things from becoming tediously formulaic and the audience on their toes. But unpredictability needs a modest dose of believability to avoid becoming mere chaos, and “Running With Scissors” lacks any at all. There’s no attempt to persuade us that these people are remotely real, let alone to explain their quirks to any substantial degree. We’re simply thrust into their midst and asked to accept their oddity as a given. The point, no doubt, is that young Augusten had to deal with them without prior preparation, and we’re in a similar position. But what works over years of life (or the hundreds of pages in a book) doesn’t compute when reduced to a two-hour movie. We’re left adrift, having to spend time with figures with whom we feel no connection, and have little or no sympathy with. They become characters in the worst sense, authorial creations without much sense of true humanity to them. They may be based on real people, but here they don’t seem remotely so. And as such they’re not very amusing, and they seem ever phonier when they’re used in a futile effort to generate some honest emotion.
The cast work overtime to give some life to these stick figures, but it’s to no avail. Bening will probably get kudos for daring to play–at so high a pitch–such a self-absorbed, overly dramatic manic depressive, but her performance seems all affectation. The same’s true of Cox’s turn, though he goes for smug understatement instead of wildness. Paltrow, Fiennes, and Union are equally shrill, in their own ways. Only the hangdog Clayburgh and the reined-in Baldwin comes across reasonably well. As for Cross, he’s amiable enough, but his blandness creates a black hole at the center of things; he’s pleasant enough without ever becoming truly engaging.
Technically “Running With Scissors” looks okay, though the production design (by Richard Sherman) occasionally goes overboard in trying for visual effect, especially in the garish exteeior of the Finch abode and a scene toward the close, in which Deirdre carefully places all her appliances and flatware out in her back yard. Christopher Baffa’s widescreen cinematography is fine, James S. Levine’s score isn’t too intrusive, and Byron Smith’s editing is okay, though one wishes he’d used his scissors a bit more to trim the picture, which seems a lot longer than the actual 121 minutes.
Ultimately, though, the blame for the picture rests with Murphy. He may have been trying for something dead-pan, but what he’s really achieved is just a deadly movie that deserves to be panned.