By Lisa Schwarzbaum
Updated October 18, 2006 at 04:00 AM EDT
Credit: Running With Scissors: Suzanne Tenner

Watching Running With Scissors the movie instead of reading Running With Scissors the best-selling memoir by Augusten Burroughs is like running with a spatula, or maybe some weird toast tongs. The experience is unusual — zany, even — but not nearly as dangerous or exhilarating as one would hope from the recklessness the title implies. This is quite a feat of dullness on the part of writer-director (and Nip/Tuck creator) Ryan Murphy, considering the rawness of Burroughs’ unenviably colorful autobiographical material: Raised by a monstrously narcissistic mother (Annette Bening) prone to psychosis and the creation of bad poetry, young Augusten (Joseph Cross) is deposited like a foster kid in the home of his mother’s barmy psychiatrist, Dr. Finch (Brian Cox). And in the way of crazy shrinks throughout psychoanalytic history, Finch has a brood (Jill Clayburgh as meek wife, Gwyneth Paltrow and Evan Rachel Wood as damaged daughters, Joseph Fiennes as profoundly disturbed ”adopted” son) that makes the clan in Little Miss Sunshine — or The Addams Family — seem Walton fresh and functional.

Burroughs describes life in the Finch hell house with bleak hilarity that gains power from the suggestion of warped ordinariness — doesn’t every shrink wake his sleeping family to admire what he has just produced in the toilet? But Murphy, a first-time feature filmmaker, lacks an equivalent voice of his own — or the confidence to influence through understatement; instead, he goes for the shorthand of ornate retro-’70s production and costume design, bumping up against arch kitsch. (To call the cluttered house itself a character, as the director has, is to cede narrative control.) Bening is elegantly unvain in her ferocious performance as a bad, sick mother, but in this standing-still adaptation she’s bested by kitchen decor.

Running with Scissors

  • Movie
  • R
  • 116 minutes
  • Ryan Murphy