"Where would we be without our horrible childhoods?" That's the question in Augusten Burrough's self-aggrandizing memoir Running with Scissors. It's the question Dr. Finch (Brian Cox) asks Augusten when he whines about his crazy mother (Annette Benning) and runaway father (Alec Baldwin) and the fact that he has been abandoned, forced to live with Dr. Finch and his eccentric family in their eccentric home.
Director/writer Ryan Murphy covets all things unconventional and eccentric, but when you watch this film, you just feel embarrassed for him. Instead of making this overwrought '70s soundtrack-
that-happens-to-have-a-"story," couldn't he have just redecorated his house or something?
We feel nothing for Augusten, who whines to his diary but never seems genuinely affected. And the other characters, particularly the heterosexual ones—Gwyneth Paltrow's bible-thumping oddball, Jill Clayburgh's dog food-eating mother, Evan Rachel Wood's tough-on-the-outside-wounded-under-
the-halter-top nymphet—are not merely one dimensional, they're downright silly. These characters would be more at home in an episode of My Name Is Earl, but you know what? They're not interesting enough to contend with Earl, who is actually, gasp, conflicted and thoughtful.
Murphy doesn't want to make a sentimental story, slathering on "black" comedy, which just turns out to be juvenile. He makes a valiant effort to make this movie cool-cool, though, with '70s clothes, blasé dialogue, funny hair styles, a clichéd dad whose necktie and suit are supposed to be enough to convey his cruelty and baseness as a human being. But all that effort to be cool is really kind of boring.
No matter how loud the primal screams are, or how often Augusten's schizophrenic boyfriend (Joseph Fiennes) bugs his eyes out in distress, or how many Elton John-esque songs smother the screen, we never give a damn about Augusten. He's a brat; he'll be fine and we know it, and there is absolutely no moment in this film when we feel for him.
Tragically, Annette Benning plays the emotionally unstable mother with such grit and aplomb that you wish she could appear in every searing family drama. Her intensity as Augusten's sexually confused, truly desperate housewife mother is unforgettable. When she clings to her son, devastated by rejection letters from The New Yorker Magazine's poetry editor, and tells him that she knows she is destined for greatness and fame, it feels like an inside joke. The most horrible thing about this movie isn't Augusten's childhood; it's Benning's work, mired in this mess.