Why is it that sometimes there's nothing like a true story to ring false? It's a question for the ages, and there's plenty of time to ponder it during Ryan Murphy's adaptation of Augusten Burroughs' bestselling memoir, which lovingly and painstakingly recounts the years Burroughs spent as the legal charge of his crazy mother's crazier psychiatrist. "I guess it doesn't matter where I begin," says the narrator, just before the movie starts. "No one is going to believe me anyway." At that point, though, there's still no reason to suspect he's right.
Murphy, who created the creepy, funny, lunatic "Nip/Tuck," is a master of mordant and macabre camp. But here he loses his teeth, seeming to lack any ironic distance from material that practically begs for it. The incredible true adventures of a flamboyant kid abandoned by his terrible parents on the cusp of adolescence, "Running With Scissors" could have used a little dose of skepticism in the adaptation. (I mean, isn't every adult in every teenager's life a delusional psychopath?) That's not to cast doubt on events as recounted -- especially not in this day and age, when the time-honored tradition of personal memoir embellishment will get you hauled in front of Oprah's Grand Tribunal and publicly excoriated in front of millions of shut-ins, stay-at-homes and writers (something I wouldn't wish on anybody) -- but to say that there's something murky and indistinct about the movie's point of view. It's hard to tell where Burroughs' ends and Murphy's begins. Burroughs' coming-of-age was so fabulously disco-Dickensian that he took notes. Surely, Murphy -- in the words of an immortal freshman English major boyfriend -- could sympathize but not empathize, but it's the impulse to empathize that gets him into trouble. The director seems to buy the author's fond auto-enshrinement wholesale and everyone gets hurt.
Augusten's (Joseph Cross) story begins in 1972, when his mother, Deirdre (Annette Bening), decides that her husband, Norman (Alec Baldwin), is trying to stifle her creatively and then kill her. Deirdre is a self-published poet with an Anne Sexton obsession -- tapping into her anger is her job. When Norman doesn't agree to daily five-hour sessions with her Santa Claus-resembling, valium-dispensing, bowel movement-obsessed shrink, Dr. Finch (Brian Cox), she leaves him and dumps Augusten at Finch's in order to check into a motel and "unblock her unconscious." And Norman, Augusten soon finds out, won't take his calls.
This is how 13-year-old Augusten comes to spend two years living at the Finches'. The doctor's family lives in a Pepto-Bismol pink Victorian mansion with papered-up windows, a lawn festooned with garbage, dishes piled to the ceiling and a Christmas tree that never comes down. Finch's wife, Agnes (Jill Clayburgh), is a catatonic shut-in who spends her days gaping at horror movies on TV and eating dog kibble out of the bag. Elder daughter Hope (Gwyneth Paltrow), who does her best to emulate a Victorian spinster, makes decisions by "Bible-dipping" (opening the book at random and pointing to a word) and claims she can talk to the cat. When the cat dies, the family stages a funeral apparently production-designed by Edward Gorey.
This is a lot of quirk, even for a Wes Anderson fan, and it feels like an attempt to distract from the fact that while a lot is going on, nothing is really happening. Deirdre goes crazy and stays crazy. Norman leaves and stays left. Finch starts weird and ends weird -- and so on. Part of the problem is that the characters feel scattered around like ornaments; there's no real insight into their lives, no sense of their pasts, no hint as to how they got this way. Was Agnes always a kibble-eater, or did something in particular tip her over the edge? Have they ever seen "Grey Gardens"?
In the meantime, there's much running around and shouting, but from the moment Augusten enters the house, you just want him to leave, and it feels like waiting to grow up. The one bright spot in Augusten's life is Finch's younger daughter Natalie (Evan Rachel Wood), a '70s vamp in disco regalia who takes him under her wing and introduces him to his first love, a 35-year-old schizophrenic named Neil Bookman (Joseph Fiennes), but by the time she enters it's pretty clear that Augusten, despite the artistic goldmine he's fallen into, doesn't display much of an inner life. Given little more to do than react, Cross seems to drift through the movie in a state of permanent lighthearted outrage at the mental institution that is his life.