I haven’t read Running With Scissors, Augusten Burroughs’ best-selling memoir about growing up with his crazy family in the 1970s, but nothing in Ryan Murphy’s noisily vacant adaptation burned me up with desire to rush out and buy the book — and not just because the dysfunctional-family memoir has run its course, and then some. Studded with stars giving their all to nothing very much, the movie lurches dutifully through Burroughs’ confusing childhood with a detached lush of a father (Alec Baldwin) and a wack job of a mother (Annette Bening) who alternately smothers him and palms him off on her equally mad shrink (Brian Cox), a charismatic tyrant who has an unsettling habit of adopting his patients and keeps a masturbatorium next to his waiting room for relief during boring therapy sessions.
If Running With Scissors has anything to propose, it’s a straight causal line from Burroughs’ unhelpful home life to his becoming (a) so clean, he boils money, (b) a gay boy with hairdressing dreams, and, finally, of course, (c) a writer. For all I know it also gave him a saving wit, the last defense of many a persecuted child. But you’d never know it from this dogged trek through scenes from Augusten’s sojourn with the cracked Dr. Finch and his ruined family. Commendably at pains to avoid whining self-pity, the movie reaches for black comedy and comes up empty of anything more than strained burlesque. Murphy, creator of the far superior television series Nip/Tuck, has an episodic sensibility far more suited to the small screen (this is his first feature), and he appears to have gone through Burroughs’ memoir with a highlighter, culling bits of weirdness to hammer into something resembling a narrative. But there’s no real story, only a collection of nut-ball cutouts, from Finch’s kibble-nibbling wife (Jill Clayburgh, channeling Lynn Redgrave) to his two daughters, a high-minded priss (Gwyneth Paltrow) and a disco-loving rebel (Evan Rachel Wood), to the pedophile adoptee (Joseph Fiennes) who gives young Augusten (Joseph Cross) his first taste of sex. One expects neither subtlety nor surprise from a scenario boasting a household pet named Freud. If there’s any reason at all to see Running With Scissors, it’s Bening, whose wholehearted, straight-ahead rendering of Deirdre Burroughs, a fame-obsessed poet manqué who exhorts the terrified women in her writing group to “put the rage on the page,” not only refuses caricature but commands our sympathy for a woman trapped in both mental illness and in the wrong decade. (AMC Century City 15, ArcLight, Pacific Theaters at The Grove)