Watching it is like finding money in the pocket of a coat that you haven’t worn in years.
“The Adderall Diaries” begins with gibberish: “We understand the world by how we retrieve memories, re-order information into stories to justify how we feel.” The quote is attributed to Stephen Elliott, the central character of this story and a real-life author, screenwriter and director ("About Cherry"). But in writer/director Pamela Romanowsky’s adaptation of Elliott’s memoir, Stephen is contextualized as a weaker James Franco film performance of the month, in a dull saga of memory, daddy issues, and slow motion flashbacks. Romanowksy's film is the type of writer's drama in which a tortured artist presents a manuscript at the end with the film's title on it.
This is the story of a past and present screw-up, who has made a career out of remembering and sharing his traumatic past. In sullen-covered books like “A Part,” he has written about the death of his mother, the abusiveness episodes of his now-deceased father, and living homeless or in group homes (presented to us in redundant slow motion, so that we can sense the seriousness of its dark atmosphere in case we didn’t get that from a moody score, or claustrophobic close-ups of abuse). This was his life before getting into Northwestern and becoming a writer, in spite of that opening quote.
If only the story were this focused, but it is not. On top of an initially curious layer about a father and his traumatized son, Christian Slater has a small part as a father named Hans Reiser, who is accused of murdering the mother of his two kids and hiding the body. Stephen hears the story and wants to write about it, just because he can (“I’m not a reporter. I just want to write a book.”) A cameo appearance from Wilmer Vanderrama as one of his friends helps get Stephen into Reiser’s story, which in turn leads to a bizarre meet-cute with a New York Times reporter played by Amber Heard, another responsibility the film can’t manage. It shifts from coming-of-age drama to writer-drama to Reiser’s court case, without a full scope. It’s a rare case where a longer running time (this one clocks around 86 minutes) might have made the script better.
Stephen’s bougie book club cred is challenged when his father (played by Ed Harris) shows up at one of Stephen’s readings, and announces that the stories have been BS. But instead of facing the fire from a Gawker or Snopes investigation, very little happens. A huge chunk of Stephen’s narrative may have been revealed to have been false, but publishers still seem interested. His editor (Cynthia Nixon) is patient with him, even when he constantly fails to deliver on a mere 20 pages a month. To sweeten his current dilemma, his new girlfriend has access to public records, so he can fix his father’s mess with no problem. Potentially offensive to people who have suffered domestic abuse, and to writers who can’t get a book deal, “The Adderall Diaries” is a story of grotesque privilege, entitled by its demons to become a tortured artist tale.
Casting goes a long way with this project, to fill some of the gaps of charisma the story itself lacks. Franco knows that the character is challenging, yet even his game presence (a multi-hyphenate himself like Elliott) can’t make Stephen a non-boring idea of a Adderall-sniffing, Macbook-typing selfish jerk. Heard makes the most of her abbreviated time (she has a full, tragic reaction when Stephen wants her to choke him to death, sexually). It’s Harris who emerges with the most complete or interesting portrait, as an intense, regretful father, more complicated than Stephen’s one-dimensional portrait of him.
Franco and Harris have a couple of showdowns that at least start with grace, but flatline. The first one even ends with Franco scowling, sunglasses on, slowly backing out of a parking spot on his motorcycle. The slightly better emotional scene is at the end, but it involves us believing that Stephen still has a VHS player. “The Adderall Diaries” is a competent, but it could be much more keen.
Aside from Stephen, “The Adderall Diaries” has its own problems with the past. Though the story starts with an interesting point that we may want to change our worst memories, Stephen apparently gets some very big details very wrong, as compared to what his father remembers. He might not be just repressed, but completely delusional. Who is right? In the end, does it matter anymore, outside of Stephen's book deal? Romanowsky's film leaves us not with an epiphany about different perspectives, but an empty gaze. The opening quote's half-assed logic doesn't entitle it a larger perspective.