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Momma always told me ‘Running with Scissors’ was a bad idea

“Running with Scissors”

TriStar Pictures

Written and directed by Ryan Murphy

Based on the memoir by Augusten Burroughs

Starring: Annette Bening, Joseph Cross, Brian Cox, Joseph Fiennes, Jill Clayburgh, Evan Rachel Wood, Gwyneth Paltrow and Alec Baldwin

Rated R/116 minutes

Opens Oct. 27

Two-and-a-half out of four stars

Ryan Murphy’s “Running with Scissors” begins with the title “based on a real-life memoir,” and I’m glad it does-we need that warning sign as we head into a long, dark tunnel of barely credible weirdness. I almost wish the filmmakers had intermittingly inserted that title again from time to time, just to remind us that, yes, life can be stranger than fiction-so excuse the contrivances.

Earlier this year, James Frey was dragged through the mud (by Judge Dredd?I mean, Judge Oprah, no less) when the not-too-surprising revelation was made that his memoir A Million Little Pieces had about a million little embellishments.

I doubt that everything that happens in Augusten Burrough’s memoir, Running with Scissors, is 100 percent factual either, but in both cases, I don’t mind too much. Looking back on our lives, we try to apply order to a series of disparate events in hopes of finding a deeper meaning or maybe some comfort in our miserable memories-even if that means shaping those memories into something less than factual.

I’m not accusing Burroughs of making this stuff up-I’m just a little…wary. The grandiose eccentricities of his life are probably more believable on the page, where Dr. Finch and his rococo home of bric-a-brac academia and crumbling sanities can enter our imaginations and become more real than reality-whereas on the big screen they just look kitschy.

Fifteen-year-old Augusten (Joseph Cross) is stuck with his mom’s bohemian psychiatrist (Brian Cox) after she dumps her husband (Alec Baldwin in a walk-on role) and goes on a quest to connect with her creative unconscious-a journey that involves writing really bad poetry, getting cozy with her neighbor’s wife and popping lots and lots of Valium. There’s something to be said here about the burgeoning industry of prescription numbness in the 1970s when this movie takes place, I just don’t think the filmmakers have put their fingers on it.

Augusten’s mom, Deirdre, is played by Annette Bening in a performance that will surely net her another Academy Award nomination. Her outward rage toward her husband and her own lack of talent turns inward in the third act when her drug abuse and persistent self-denial pull her into madness. Her descent brings the movie back to Earth after a mid-stretch of unrelentingly bizarre situations.

That mid-stretch involves Augusten and his stay at the Finch home. Imagine the Tenenbaum family, minus the genius and plus 10 on the demented scale. That’s the Finches. Dr. Finch sees not only patients, but also divine inspiration in his morning bowel movements. His wife, Agnes (Jill Clayburgh), watches vampire soap operas and eats kibble. Daughter Hope (Gwyneth Paltrow) randomly sticks her finger in the Bible for direction (the word “awakenings” tells her that fish-sticks will be acceptable for dinner). The other daughter, Natalie (Evan Rachel Wood), straps Augusten to an electro-shock therapy machine on their first meeting. And Neil Bookman (Joseph Fiennes), an orbiting patient of Dr. Finch’s, engages Augusten in a pedophilic, homosexual relationship.

These characters are written as larger-than-life, but on film, their idiosyncratic melodramas have been made too literal to be taken seriously. The Finch family in particular comes off as just another cuckoo decoration in a house of overly art-directed emotional shambles.

And yet I pinch myself and remember that someone claims to have lived this life. Poor soul. We’re supposed to laugh at a lot of what happens in “Running with Scissors,” and we do, but I responded more to Augusten’s need to shoulder through this mess and come out unscathed on the other side. That much is convincing, if the rest is not.

“Yes. Uh-huh. Giant alcoholic marsupials. Very good?very good. Now, where’s my prescription pad? The good doctor needs his valium.” Brian Cox plays a game of Who’s Crazier Than Whom? with Annette Bening.

“Yes, dear, that’s Unkie Rick. No, that’s not a fetus on his face.” Annette Bening and Joseph Cross ogle an unfortunate in “Running with Scissors.”

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