As a bestseller, Augusten Burroughs' quirky memoir Running With Scissors probably would have made it to the screen even if Noah Baumbach's The Squid And The Whale hadn't been an Oscar-nominated critical hit, but it might have been a far different film. Scissors is packed with the kind of miserablist youth horrors that are Todd Solondz's stock in trade–abusive parents, early sexual trauma, abandonment, extreme emotional isolation–but where Solondz would suffuse them with weighty dread, Nip/Tuck director-producer Ryan Murphy and his cast present them with a light comic touch similar to Baumbach's style. Scissors is full of horrible people doing horrible things, but they go to such unlikely extremes that it's impossible to hate them or get bogged down in their distress; schadenfreude may rear its ugly head, but authentic sadness rarely does.
Growing up under the influence of a pretentious, manic-depressive diva mother (Annette Bening), Burroughs is a twee child whose oddities distance him from his alcoholic father (Alec Baldwin), who clearly doesn't understand how he ended up saddled with this weird family. By the time Burroughs reaches adolescence (and is played by Joseph Cross), Bening's hopes of becoming a famed poet are wearing thin; seeking therapy, she enters the sway of a deeply weird therapist (a beautifully cast Brian Cox) who maintains a "masturbatorium" off his office, adopts his adult patients, and reads portents for the future in his own feces. Before long, Baldwin leaves and Bening abandons Burroughs to the care of Cox and his anarchic family of misfits, including daughter Gwyneth Paltrow, who claims the family cat speaks to her, and adoptee Joseph Fiennes, a co-dependent pederast who willingly supplies Burroughs' sexual initiation.
In other hands, all this might be sordid and dreadful; in Murphy's hands, however, it seems comic, with an almost fairy-tale brightness and an outlandish "this can't be happening" mindset that mirrors Burroughs' consternation. The surreality is distancing, but authentic, believable performances and a low-key affect keep Running From Scissors from turning shrill. Burroughs' foster family has sued him for defamation, paradoxically claiming that he portrayed them so accurately that their identities were apparent, and that he misrepresented them. Watching this film, that claim is easier to understand. The details of Burroughs' story are rarely believable, but the emotions ring true. His is a familiar adolescent anomie–it just comes in a more entertaining package than most.