The film Running with Scissors looks almost exactly like your mind's-eye view of Augusten Burroughs' best-selling memoir of his bizarre childhood. The film adaptation gets the physical details exactly right, from the avocado greens of 1970s middle-class suburbs to a loony psychiatrist's squalid mansion, where junk litters the front lawn and "Dark Shadows" plays on the TV.
Looks, however, aren't everything, as writer/director Ryan Murphy regularly proves on "Nip/Tuck," his FX series about plastic surgeons. Apart from a few sentimental moments, Murphy keeps faith with the letter of the book, while completely missing its tone of queasy, morally ambivalent comedy worthy of David Sedaris.
You know everything about Deirdre Burroughs (Annette Bening) within minutes of seeing her. In one of the film's early sequences, she pours out her heart to her 6-year-old son, Augusten, reading her self-pitying, self-aggrandizing poetry with nary a thought that it might be inappropriate maternal quality time. Like many a would-be Anne Sexton, Deirdre mistakes her own unhappiness as proof of unrecognized genius, and takes her frustrations out on everyone within reach. She terrorizes a group of literary housewives and browbeats her hard-drinking husband, Norman, whom Alec Baldwin plays as being understandably "checked-out."
She could use a good therapist, but instead falls under the sway of a bad one: Dr. Finch (Brian Cox), who arrives at the Burroughs house in an amusing visual echo of The Exorcist. Deirdre all but worships the charlatan Svengali and ends up dumping now-adolescent Augusten (Joseph Cross) at Finch's filthy, rambling household. The young neat freak gazes in horror as Finch's wife, Agnes (Jill Clayburgh), eats dog food from the bag, but he finds an ally in her sexually precocious younger daughter, Natalie (Evan Rachel Wood). Augusten also forms a homosexual relationship with Finch's unstable adopted son, Neil (Joseph Fiennes), who's almost two decades older.
The casting and photography of Running with Scissors should be above reproach, but you watch the creepy episodes wondering what the filmmaker thinks of them or how he expects us to react. Emotionally, Murphy leaves most of the heavy lifting to the period music. Manfred Mann's version of "Blinded by the Light" accompanies one character's nervous breakdown, the intro to Sir Elton's "Benny and the Jets" underscores a parental walkout, and Al Stewart's "Year of the Cat" underscores a montage of characters erupting with primal screams and other outbursts.
If the film has a target -- and it's not clear that it does -- it seems to be the indulgent excesses of the valium-popping Me Decade. The Finch house turns out to be a Neverland in ways more bad than good. Finch matter-of-factly points out the "masturbatorium" near his office and, later, counsels Augusten to fake a suicide attempt to get out of school. With no rules or boundaries, Finch's kingdom becomes a mental mess as much as a pig's sty, where the character's quirks grow and fester. Cox emphasizes Finch's sinister qualities more than his zany ones as a bad Santa look-alike, while Cross captures the watchful wisdom that suits Burroughs' voice in the book. The youngest and most innocent role also seems to be the most responsible.
Bening unquestionably applies intelligence and insight to capture every dimension of Deirdre's delusions and pettiness, as well as the role's heavily medicated moments. But for all the actress's efforts, the performance comes almost to naught. We dislike Deirdre from the very beginning, and our feelings toward her never change. From Augusten's point of view, she must have had an excitement and glamour, but we never really see her through his eyes.
Maybe director Todd Solondz could have better captured Running with Scissors' detached, deadpan humor, which fits the director's uncomfortably black comedies such as Welcome to the Dollhouse. But Running with Scissors may defy film adaptation, where images on an oversized screen can't achieve the distance and detachment of the written word. Some things are better left to the imagination.