'Running With Scissors'

Writing bestselling tell-alls can be a sweet revenge, especially if they are powered by monster women and turned into movies with virtuoso roles for actresses of a certain age.

Since filmmakers can afford to be more magnanimous than the abused editorial assistants or wayward children who settled private scores in public fashion, these movies tend to be more forgiving than the books that inspired them. Just as "The Devil Wears Prada'' softened the edges of Lauren Weisberger's harridan fashion rag editor, "Running With Scissors'' puts a more humane spin on the ferocious matriarchal theatrics that launched Augusten Burroughs' literary career.

Ryan Murphy's leaden adaptation of "Scissors,'' a kind of "You Can't Take It With You'' for the strung-out '70s, re-creates the main events of Burroughs' memoir. A fawnlike Joseph Cross plays the adolescent Augusten, defending himself against the whims and furies of his bipolar mother Deirdre (Annette Bening), a feminist poet with visions of fame. After Deirdre's explosions send her alcoholic husband (a nicely implosive Alec Baldwin) packing, she boards Augusten with her whack-job therapist, Dr. Finch (Brian Cox), a doctor feel-good who never knew an interpersonal boundary he couldn't violate.

Dr. Finch's home, a neoclassical junkyard splashed in pink, is a textbook study in what can happen when the head inmate abandons the asylum's stewardship to his family. Mrs. Finch (Jill Clayburgh) zones out on dog kibble and "Dark Shadows,'' daughter Natalie (Erin Rachel Wood) plays with dad's electroshock therapy tools; older daughter Hope (Gwyneth Paltrow), stepping in for their checked-out mom, relegates all household decisions to quotes selected blindly from the Bible.

While his mom fools around with her poetry-club chum Fern (Kristin Chenowith) and descends deeper into madness, Augusten discovers his sexuality courtesy of the 30-something Neil (Joseph Fiennes), a schizophrenic patient and adopted son of Dr. Finch.

It's interesting to see how Murphy's script dances around Augusten's actual age at the dawn of this affair (13). Murphy accordingly dulls the comic shock tactics that made the book's glib prose style so compulsively readable. A range of retro FM hits underscore the story's Nixonian time frame, but the film is utterly lacking in a sense of place. Burroughs' freewheeling coming-of-age was very much grounded in the angry feminism and boundary-pushing experimentation of a western Massachusetts college community in the '70s, a context that is entirely lost in Murphy's characterless Everytown USA.

It's an oddly drab and disconnected experience, neither as raucously funny nor as moving as it wants us to think it is. The reasons to see it are Clayburgh, who brings an affecting gravity to her lost psychiatrist's wife, and Bening. A fiercely intelligent artist, she mines all of Deirdre's contradictions with the compassion of someone who's weathered storms of her own, transforming her into something more resounding than a fledgling author's primal scream.

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