At times an entertainingly outrageous childhood-from-hell comedy and at others a frustrating missed opportunity, “Running With Scissors” ultimately suffers from weirdness-over-depth syndrome as its young protagonist navigates numerous straits of domestic pathology. But it scores points for novelty and eccentricity.
Mental illness, alcoholism, child abandonment and pedophilia are among the trials that unfold in a humorous light in this off-kilter coming-of-ager, which is based on New York writer Augusten Burroughs’ acclaimed memoir and directed and adapted by Ryan Murphy. The protagonist is Burroughs’ younger self, presented foremost as a 1970s teen (Joseph Cross). The kindred relations who shape his wrong strange trip supply the quirk and spark.
Primary challenges include Augusten’s mother, Deirdre (Annette Bening), a bipolar poet with delusions of impending fame. Following her split from Augusten’s alcoholic dad (Alec Baldwin), Deirdre dumps Augusten into the care of her kooky shrink, Dr. Finch (Brian Cox), who lives in an unkempt pink Victorian, has scatological fixations and presides, warped-patriarch style, over the dynamics of his equally nutty family.
The clan includes Finch’s kibble-munching wife, Agnes (Jill Clayburgh), along with tense religious daughter Hope (Gwyneth Paltrow) and rebellious sibling Natalie (Evan Rachel Wood), who plays electroshock games. Schizophrenic 30-something Neil (Joseph Fiennes), meanwhile, becomes sexually involved with 14-year-old Augusten.
As family-dysfunction fare goes, the film lacks the credibility of Wes Anderson’s “The Royal Tenenbaums,” and, in dealing seriocomically with mental illness, it pales next to the Canadian film “Leolo.” Murphy, a TV director-producer (“Nip/Tuck”) making his big-screen debut, delivers a shower of oddball ingredients rather than a solid drama.
Also problematic is Augusten, who, as played by Cross, doesn’t provide the gravity that memoir protagonists require. Bening’s Deirdre, conversely, is such a force of both vibrancy and need, and Cox’s Finch so off-the-wall colorful as a blend of the worst aspects of Freudianism and me-decade excess, that you find your interest settling, instead, with them.
But if there’s too much pathology going on, the film contains some stellar moments within its personal and familial thickets.
These high points range from simple peculiarity (Augusten boiling his allowance coins) to satisfying dramatic payoffs. The latter include moving encounters between Augusten and Clayburgh’s Agnes, a poignant personification of shelved dreams. Had she and the rest of the shortchanged supporting characters been allowed to show more such humanity, the film might have been the affecting survivor’s story it aims to be. As is, it’s vital sputter.
Running With Scissors **½
Starring Annette Bening, Joseph Cross, Brian Cox, Evan Rachel Wood, Jill Clayburgh, Joseph Fiennes and Alec Baldwin
Written and directed by Ryan Murphy, based on the memoir by Augusten Burroughs
Running time 2 hours, 2 minutes