There's not a whole lot to say about "Running With Scissors," a reasonably faithful, occasionally affecting film adaptation of Augusten Burroughs's best-selling memoir . It replicates the particulars of the author's freakishly awful adolescence and some of the emotional sting -- but not quite enough, or at least not enough to stand on its own feet as a movie. There are good actors doing very good work here, though, and there's one performance that conveys all the pain and comic, cosmic bewilderment the rest of the film just misses.
That performance doesn't belong to the story's central figure, which is one reason "Running" never fully connects. Joseph Cross is pleasantly agonized as Augusten, the teenage hero whose mother dumps him with her psychiatrist's wild and woolly family during the height of the Me Decade. The problem with coming-of-age memoirs is that their narrators are often the least crazy, and least interesting, characters in them, and the reedy Cross does little to convince us otherwise. Burroughs's authorial voice -- sardonic, insightful, sadly wise -- is very much missed.
Annette Bening as Augusten's mother, Deirdre, though -- now, here's a performance. She writes dreadful poetry and worships The New Yorker; she informs her adoring son that "your mother was meant to be a very famous person." That makes sense, since Deirdre acts her way through life, growing increasingly desperate when the applause doesn't come.
Raging against her uncomprehending, soon-to-vanish husband (Alec Baldwin, a black hole of suburban sorrow), Deirdre uses Anne Sexton and the language of personal growth to support bottomless self-absorption. In this she is exquisitely of her era.
With the arrival of Dr. Finch (Brian Cox), "Running With Scissors" begins its lift-off into the loonier stratosphere of '70s excess. He looks like Santa Claus -- actually, he looks like C. Everett Koop's evil twin -- and one of his first requests to Deirdre is "Tell me about your bowel movements." Needless to say, she trusts the man completely.
So much so that Augusten is soon installed in Dr. Finch's decaying mansion while mother goes off to find herself. There he finds solace with the house's collection of lost souls: dowdy Mrs. Finch (Jill Clayburgh, the life seemingly sucked out of her bone marrow ), snippy and possibly crazy daughter Hope (Gwyneth Paltrow), and adopted daughter Natalie (Evan Rachel Wood), a cynical survivor who becomes the boy's soul mate . There's also a little boy seen pooping behind a withered Christmas tree in the living room, but he doesn't matter much in this version of the tale.
Augusten quickly comes to understand that he's gay, which is no big deal. Natalie introduces him to her father's 20-something bi polar patient Neil (Joseph Fiennes, sporting a dandy Village People fu manchu), who in short order seduces the boy -- this is a big deal, but beyond upping Augusten's age a few years from the book (in which he was 13), the movie understands that Neil is more to be pitied than censured. Everyone here is to be pitied; the world as far as Augusten can see is to be pitied. There's grace here if the movie were willing to dig for it.
Occasionally it does. A scene in which Augusten and Natalie impulsively pull down the ceiling of the Finchs' kitchen is scored to Al Stewart's "Year of the Cat," and it's an ecstatic bit -- the two literally tear the roof off the sucker as the rest of the characters crumple into their separate miseries.
Director Ryan Murphy, the creator of TV's "Nip/Tuck" who makes his big-screen debut here, knows that laughter and sobs are equally valid reactions to psychic damage, and he knows the plastic banalities of '70s culture can be strip-mined to great effect. "Running With Scissors" has an eye for precision period kitsch; from "Dark Shadows" on TV to "The Things We Do for Love" on the radio to a green Bell & Howell tape recorder on a coffee table, the movie nails its epoch better than any movie since "The Ice Storm."
Still, the book has had its darkest, least-forgiving details sanded off for the multiplex. It has been tamed, and you come away feeling Deirdre's pain and almost no one else's, despite excellent work by Wood, Clayburgh, and Cox as the imperturbably insane Dr. Finch. Bening makes her character both larger than life and pathetically small; she shows you geological layers of rage, need, fear, and -- down there toward the bedrock -- something almost but not quite like love.
"Where would we be without our painful childhoods?" asks Dr. Finch. Augusten Burroughs knows the answer in all its complexity. The movie made from his book flinches from the evidence.
Ty Burr can be reached at email@example.com.