Taking Adderall, a medication meant to help ADHD, is supposed to provide a burst of concentration and a clarity of focus. Thus the lethargic experience of watching The Adderall Diaries, which just premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival, is doubly puzzling given its inaccessible and scattershot narrative.
Adapted from the Stephen Elliot memoir of the same name, The Adderall Diaries is the latest James Franco true crime film to deal with a writer and the murderer he covers (the other being this month’s more attuned and persuasive True Story). But whereas in one film he’s the criminal, he is here the writer covering a trial. At least, that is one possible description of a film that dictates many first chapters but rarely finds time for a follow-up page, never mind a second draft.
Franco plays Elliot, a gifted literary genius living in New York with an advance on his next book. But with massive writer’s block intruding on the creative process, Elliot does not really know what the next book is other than a continuation of his childhood traumas. After all, those horrors served him well for his first publication, which centered on his relationship with an abusive, dead father.
So, when said father Neil Elliot, played with sweaty poise by a terrific Ed Harris, shows up at one of Stephen’s readings from the text, things get a little awkward. However, just as his father rises from the seeming dead to possibly destroy Stephen’s literary career, Stephen is also finding inspiration for his next book by following the trial of a man (Christian Slater) accused of murdering his missing wife—which might mirror Stephen’s relationship with Harris’ Neil if his attention was not so intensely held by fellow crime watcher, Lana Edmond (Amber Heard). But any hope for a sustained romance is also short-lived since to pen his literary redemption, Stephen has turned to Adderall and other assorted drugs.
The Adderall Diaries has many things going for it besides its well-known title. For starters, the entire cast is stacked with enviable talent, such as the aforementioned Harris. In what is undoubtedly the film’s strongest tangent, Franco and Harris boil with indignation and acrimony that turns their verbal sparring matches into a contact sport. One might be Hollywood’s proclaimed renaissance man, but the other is Ed Harris, a master for this specific kind of boisterous canvas.
Other winsome inclusions are cursory supporting roles embodied by Cynthia Nixon, who plays Stephen’s exasperated literary agent that can’t get him in front of a word processor, and Jim Parrack as Stephen’s childhood best friend. Both help fill in the basis of the memoir’s conceit (and the film’s other strong point): under the guise of literary license, Stephen has been an “editor” of his own life. In other words, he has the habit of making things up and falsely remembering aspects of his childhood, thereby allowing our protagonist to be an unreliable narrator.
The trick is underscored by the familiar but effective approach of Stephen’s flashbacks taking on different contexts when other characters also recall those formative years. Jumping into heavy drugs like heroin and cocaine during his youth probably couldn’t have helped the memory any despite how violent and unquestionably cruel the father tended to be.
Unfortunately, many of these advantages are left unopened in the medicine cabinet by director Pamela Romanowsky. Displaying genuine affection for the material since she also wrote the screenplay, much of Stephen Elliot’s questionable memories make it to the screen, perhaps too many. In addition to his cameoing stint as a failed true crime novelist, Elliot’s penchant for BDSM, the dissolution of his childhood friendship, and a myriad of other chestnuts cross the screen with nary a connection to the overall structure of the film. Indeed, these storylines do not so much move as all crumble and reemerge christened with some inferred sense of earned wisdom via multiple montages, which feels closer to independent filmmaking shortcuts than those of an untrustworthy memoirist.
For his part, Franco attempts to tie all the threads together, but of the many “experimental” hats he tries on with every passing year, Stephen Elliot is one that fits a little too neatly to look right on him. Besides, the narrative threads aren’t tangled; they’re lying side-by-side without an intersection to be found.