The truth is out there, but even Augusten Burroughs has some doubt that you'll believe him. Or at least that's how begins the narration in the movie based on his memoir of an extremely dysfunctional childhood.
It's not difficult to question the veracity of Burroughs' story in this post-Million Little Pieces world (you'll recall that book's author getting ripped a new one on Oprah for fictionalizing portions of his hooked-on-drugs story).
True or not, that quality of incredibility, combined with Burroughs' dark sense of humor about the whole ordeal, has made his tale popular, enjoying two and a half years as a New York Times bestseller. If the film (directed by Nip/Tuck creator Ryan Murphy) doesn't successfully tap into those same veins of humor and horror, it's not for lack of material. In fact, there's almost too much material to work with here, and Murphy waffles between favoring the sentimental and darkly comic.
In Running with Scissors, we meet young Augusten's mom, Deirdre (Annette Bening), an aspiring poet who divorces her husband, Augusten's alcoholic dad, and eventually comes out as a lesbian. Hopped up on psych drugs, she gives custody of the teenage Augusten (Joseph Cross) to her shrink, Dr. Finch (Brian Cox), who is arguably more messed-up than this Mommy Dearest.
Finch's home makes The Addams Family digs look like a Barbie Dream House. Elder daughter Hope (Gwyneth Paltrow) is so whacked-out that when she claims to have stewed the family cat, no one doubts her. And Finch allows Augusten to have an affair with his 33-year-old adopted schizophrenic son, Bookman (Joseph Fiennes), to help the boy find himself.
Augusten's only somewhat-normal relationships come from Finch's wife, Agnes, who, despite snacking on Kitty Kibble, keeps a concerned, motherly eye on the boy. And he finds companionship in younger daughter Natalie, who seems somewhat stable despite the family of mental cases.
With so many freaks under one roof, the Running with Scissors movie should be a riotous celebration of oddity, neuroses and pop psychology. (In one humorous touch, Finch's kids perfectly typify Freud's oral, anal and phallic stages of psychosexual development, and tell each other so during a dinner-table squabble.) Instead, Murphy focuses too much on the dramatics of Augusten's coming-of-age story. After one boogie-fever disco dance lesson and Tab cola reference too many, the movie feels less like The Royal Tenenbaums and more like Almost Famous sentimental and nostalgic where it should be dark and acerbic.
There's also a problem of too much of a good, er, bad thing like if Anna Nicole Smith married into the Whitney/Bobby clan and TV cameras were at the wedding. How messed-up is too messed-up for compelling viewing?
Burroughs and Murphy have found the answer. When a patient's toddler visiting the Finch family takes a crap behind the two-year-old Christmas tree in the family room and the reaction is "Aw, look, he did it again," it's not as funny as it is sad. After too many "no, he didn't do that" moments and gross-outs, one almost wishes we could share in those funny pills Dr. Finch hands out so liberally. Because, when it comes to the scene where the mad doc fishes in the toilet bowl to show off the shape of his morning bowel movement, anything to make the painful reality of this movie just go away would be welcome.
Clare Pfeiffer Ramsey writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.