The writer/director Ryan Murphy is responsible for two interesting television series: The charming, short-lived Popular, on the late WB; and FX's Nip/Tuck, which got in one good season before turning ludicrous.
This isn't much of a track record to suggest he had the chops to film Running With Scissors, Augusten Burroughs' disturbing, uncanny and -- depending upon your sense of humor -- grimly funny memoir of growing up in what will probably become the first family admitted to the Museum of Dysfunction.
You can blame Burroughs for having lived a life of such unrelenting Freudian horror. Or you can blame Murphy for not walking away from a project born to fail. Either way, his film is wrong in every way a film can be: In two hours, he doesn't sustain a single dialogue, sensation or idea; he uses a double-album soundtrack of pop tunes to bridge his empty emotional gaps; and he photographs half of it in closeup, like he's directing a television show.
We meet the Burroughs family in 1972, when Augusten is about 7. His mother, Deirdre (Annette Bening), a narcissistic poet who thinks she's an undiscovered literary genius, is well on her way to her first psychotic break, and his father (Alec Baldwin) is an alcoholic who couldn't care less. By 1979, Deirdre is in therapy with Dr. Finch (Brian Cox), a failing psychiatrist who sees anger as the key to everything, and who controls everyone in his circle with his own domineering placidity.
Deirdre, off on her own delusions, soon hands Augusten (Joseph Cross) over to the doctor and his family: wife Agnes (Jill Clayburgh), who has withdrawn into her own emotional seclusion; punky younger daughter Natalie (Evan Rachel Wood), who knows she'll never go to college with a family like this; and shrill older daughter Hope (Gwyneth Paltrow), who is the antithesis of her name.
On the one hand, Running With Scissors is comfortable, as it should be, with allowing Augusten to tell Natalie, without fanfare or trauma, that he's gay. On the other hand, we don't know he's still just 14 until well after he begins to sleep with Neil Bookman (Joseph Fiennes), who's 35. We join the lad's deflowering safely post-coitus, as Bookman tells him, "That's what gay men do. I just wanted you to know what you're in for." Trouble is, neither is nearly undressed enough to have just had sex. Even television characters pretend to be naked.
This reticence is typical of Murphy's clumsily assembled patchwork of scenes and themes from the book. Some serious, if attractive, miscasting doesn't help. Murphy ends his movie like an episode of Popular, with Crosby, Stills and Nash sagely singing "Treat Your Children," and with Cross -- who was 19 when he made the film -- sitting next to the real Burroughs, who gives him a playful punch on the arm. All of that, I'm certain, will some day be Exhibit A in the Museum of Lost Nerve.