Augusten Burroughs’ four-year-old book, “Running With Scissors,” which is topping the paperback best-seller lists again now that it’s a movie, is supposed to be a memoir. Why, then, does it feel so false?
There’s a calculated eccentricity about Burroughs’ stranger-than-fiction book and writer-director Ryan Murphy’s unsatisfying film version. Both tell essentially the same story about a gay teenager, Augusten (Joseph Cross), who is forced to divide his time between two dysfunctional families.
While his parents (Annette Bening, Alec Baldwin) are splitting up, his mother becomes the patient (and more) of valium-dispensing therapist Dr. Finch (Brian Cox). Augusten is forced to move into Finch’s disintegrating home, which is in danger of being repossessed by the IRS. There he must deal with Finch’s television-addicted wife (Jill Clayburgh), and their nutty children, Natalie (Evan Rachel Wood) and Hope (Gwyneth Paltrow).
Everyone’s a kinky caricature, sentimentally celebrated for their perversity, even if much of their behavior is ultimately wasteful and self-destructive. At least you can’t complain that Murphy hasn’t captured the book’s rancid tone. And the art directors must have had a field day recreating the pink horror that is Dr. Finch’s home.
Supposedly a comedy set in the directionless late 1970s, the movie falls flattest when it’s trying to be funny. When the Finches attend a feline funeral, we’re told that the cover story is “leukemia,” and we’re supposed to be amused by the real reason for the cat’s premature death: the family neglected to feed it.
The doctor frequently retreats to his “Masturbatorium,” a room whose title should leave no need for explanation. Nevertheless, he’s happy to provide one. When Bookman (Joseph Fiennes), Dr. Finch’s adopted 35-year-old son, seduces 14-year-old Augusten and blithely introduces him to cigarette addiction, you may find yourself wondering how this would play if Augusten were a Washington D.C. page and Bookman a predatory senator.
Also appalling, and apparently meant to be punchlines: Augusten’s father’s dismissal of his son (“I really don’t see myself in you at all”), his drama-queen mother’s advice to aspiring writers (“Get the rage on the page, women”), and Dr. Finch’s lunatic advice about faking suicides and making prophecies based on feces formation.
“Why can’t we just be a normal family?” protests the bewildered Augusten, who is, of course, the only semi-sensible character in sight. Repulsed by the families but fascinated by recreating them for his journal, he claims that “nobody’s going to believe me” as he continues to write/narrate. Cross and Bening work hard, to no avail, to achieve believability.
What Burroughs and Murphy are attempting is not impossible. Last year’s semi-autobiographical “The Squid and the Whale” did manage to pull off the trick of finding humor and silver linings in the misery of a disintegrating family. But it’s probably necessary to relate to at least one character in such a stew.