Running with Scissors

Movie critics use the word “quirky” often (maybe too often) to describe films about odd or eccentric characters. The novelty of such movies is usually appreciated … until you get something like “Running with Scissors,” where the quirkiness feels forced and self-conscious, as if the movie is saying, “Hey, get a load of how unusual these people are!”

Much of the wackiness no doubt comes from the bestseller it’s based on, in which author Augusten Burroughs recounts what supposedly was his true and factual childhood, albeit with some of the names changed (like, um, his own). I haven’t read the book, though I gather the movie is largely faithful to it. Still, we are reviewing the movie, not the book. If the movie has flaws, it doesn’t matter whose fault they are.

We begin in 1972 in a cartoonishly sunny house decorated in yellows and whites. It’s the home of Deidre Burroughs (Annette Bening), part-time alcoholic and chain-smoker, would-be celebrity poet, and mother to 6-year-old Augusten (Jack Kaeding). Deidre and Augusten are excessively attached to one another, making up silly excuses for him to miss school and conspiring against Dad (Alec Baldwin), himself a champion-level drinker who has no idea what to make of his dotty wife and their precocious son.

Jump ahead to 1978. Dad is even less involved than before, Augusten (now played by Joseph Cross) has stopped going to school altogether, and Deidre’s competence as a mother is ever-slipping. She starts seeing a psychiatrist named Dr. Finch (Brian Cox), who, like everyone in the film, is insane. Inexplicably, when Deidre finds she must have some time alone to collect herself, she leaves Augusten in the care of Dr. Finch himself.

Finch lives in a cluttered and filthy Pepto-Bismol-colored house with his wildly dysfunctional family. His wife, Agnes (Jill Clayburgh), eats dog food and stares at the TV all day, seemingly oblivious to her environment. They have two daughters, one a prim, gingham-clad future spinster named Hope (Gwyneth Paltrow), the other a slutty, rebellious teen named Natalie (Evan Rachel Wood, playing a slutty, rebellious teen for the 1,482th time in her young life). The good doctor openly adores Hope and openly rejects Natalie.

There is also, living out back in a shed, a sort of adopted Finch family member named Neil Bookman (Joseph Fiennes). He’s 35, gay, crazy (of course; you can assume that of every character I mention, whether I specify it or not), and evidently fond of younger men. Augusten has already announced his own gayness, and he and Neil start a relationship.

I don’t know how the book handles this, but I know how the movie handles it: badly. Neil is 35, Augusten is 14. In no possible way is their relationship healthy, legal, non-predatory or non-creepy. Yet the film, adapted and directed by Ryan Murphy (creator of TV’s “Nip/Tuck”), treats it as just another one of those “quirky” things. The cluttered house, the goofy psychiatrist, the kibble-eating mom, the pedophile who lives out back — just another loopy night at the movies, folks!

Aiding this is the casting of Joseph Cross as Augusten. Cross was 19 when the film was shot and, while youthful, doesn’t look any younger than maybe 17. Hence, we forget how young the character is supposed to be. Our minds say, “Here’s a 17-year-old with an older boyfriend.” Had Murphy cast someone who looked 14 — or, heaven forbid, an actual 14-year-old — we’d be having the appropriate reaction, which is, “Here’s a 14-year-old being molested.”

The film’s cavalier attitude toward that situation is not encouraging, but that’s not to say there aren’t a lot of redeeming factors. All of the acting is top-notch, and a general sense of humor pervades even the more melodramatic moments. Augusten’s relationship with Agnes Finch — insane, but more of a mother than Deidre ever was — is sweet, too, and the lovely Jill Clayburgh is to be admired for making herself look so dowdy.

This cavalcade of kooky souls, all boundary-less yet full of unexpressed rage and fear, is palatable, even enjoyable, for a while, but not for two hours. A two-hour film needs characters we believe, like, and feel connected to, not freaks from a sideshow. I mean, when you go to the carnival, how long do you stand looking at the freaks? Five minutes, tops?

C+ (1 hr., 56 min.; R, lots of harsh profanity, some vulgarity, brief sexuality.)