The Adderall Diaries (2016)
Written & Directed by Pamela Romanowsky
Stephen Elliott’s first book was a memoir on his mother’s death due to cancer and the subsequent emotional and physical abuse at his father’s hands which he cites as driving him to drugs. Stephen has gotten a new book deal and is checking out what he wants to write about next, finally setting on the murder trial of Hans Reiser, a software guru accused of killing his estranged wife. During a reading from his memoir, Stephen is interrupted by his father whom he has written had died years prior. This sudden revelation causes the writer to lose credibility among New York’s publishing scene and eventually strains his relationships. With little options, Stephen decides to directly confront his father and his misgivings about his memories of the past.
The Adderall Diaries is such a colossal misfire from the first ten minutes. The most glaring problem is, once again, James Franco. I don’t understand the appeal of casting Franco because at this point I feel he’s displayed a supreme weakness in most acting gigs. Typically I blame the director or the script, but Franco has appeared in numerous projects that exhibit his poor and unconvincing line delivery and a profound lack of subtlety in his choices. If Franco was more disastrous in a fun way like Nicolas Cage, it might be another story, but this consistent leading man is so painfully dull.
This doesn’t mean the script is good though. Romanowsky delivers an overcrowded text with so many undeveloped supporting characters. The Reiser murder trial feels like it should be a centerpiece but it gets cast aside during the middle of the film and is brought back at the end with little impact. Stephen has a best friend from childhood who is not developed in any meaningful way. Stephen’s relationship with NYT reporter Lana doesn’t go anywhere either and feels rushed so that when they fall apart, it’s supposed to mean something.
The only actor putting their all into their performance is Ed Harris as Neill Elliott, Stephen’s dad. He’s a solid actor with experience who knows how to wrangle something decent out of this mess. He brings some pathos to Neill while still refraining from making him a kindly old man. He is a bastard, and you understand why Stephen hates and resents him. However, Franco doesn’t make Stephen very sympathetic so as an audience member you’ll have an unintentionally tricky time connecting emotionally to any character.
The concept behind this film isn’t terrible. Exploring the line between fact and fiction in memoirs and how our memory is often a remixing of events over extended periods of time is fascinating. The problem is that this is based on a real book and Stephen Elliott is a real person and that he never presented any false memoir. In a review of the film for Vulture, Elliott explains that he thinks the memoir in the movie is based on a novel he had written, something that was never presented as a factual biographical work. Furthermore, Elliott says the way the film addresses its questions about memory and truth feels too simple and straightforward.
Almost nothing in the movie is “true” — in terms of both the source material, as it was published, and my life, as it has been lived. After Stephen is outed as a liar by his father, his publisher, amazingly, is still interested in his next book, for which they’ve given him an enormous advance. This is foreign to me, because as a writer, I don’t pitch. I write books and then I try to sell them. Not always finished, but at least 80 percent of the way. I never get big advances. For The Adderall Diaries, I was given $20,000; for the book before that, $2,500. In the movie, Stephen’s agent got twice what they were asking for this unwritten book. The publisher doesn’t drop him until he doesn’t show up for a meeting after going out on a drug and sex bender. But they wait for three hours first. The movie is filled with these kinds of unbelievable details, eroding its verisimilitude, challenging us to believe this created world.
Elliott nails why I felt so disconnected while watching The Adderall Diaries. It’s a possibly relatable story told in such an unrelatable manner that you could never find a way to see through its protagonist’s eyes.