“The Adderall Diaries” opens Friday at AMC Fitchburg. R, 1:45, one and a half stars out of four.
Stephen Elliott’s “The Adderall Diaries” would be a beast of a book for any filmmaker to try to adapt. The hazy brew of addiction memoir and true-crime nonfiction may have worked well on the page, but writer-director Pamela Romanowsky’s confused and easily distracted film feels like several first acts jammed together with nowhere to go.
James Franco plays Elliott as a bad-boy literary superstar who favors punk rock T-shirts, leather jackets and motorcycles. You know, like most novelists do in real life. The movie begins with him riding high on acclaim from a previous memoir about his abusive father (Ed Harris) and homeless, drug-addled adolescence. A big publisher is eagerly awaiting his next book, all the cool magazines want to interview him.
But Elliott is blocked, toying around with more memoir of his troubled childhood, which we see in quick, impressionistic glimpses. I will say that at least “Adderall” doesn’t have the cliché of the blocked writer staring at an empty screen and a blinking cursor. Instead, Elliott writes sentences like “We are all victims of our fathers” and immediately deletes them. That seems about right.
Restless, Elliott becomes drawn to the real-life murder case of software tycoon Hans Reiser (Christian Slater), charged with killing his wife. Elliott insists to his skeptical agent (Cynthia Nixon) that the book could be his “In Cold Blood,” but he doesn’t seem that interested in the trial, other than in drawing rather ham-handed connections with his own father, and starting a romance with a New York Times writer (an underused Amber Heard).
Then, as if the movie didn’t already have enough on its plate, Elliott’s father re-emerges, snarling at a book reading that many of the details in the memoir are fictionalized. So now, in addition to being Dave Eggers and Truman Capote, Elliott gets to be James Frey as well.
“The Adderall Diaries” never commits to any of these paths in a convincing way – the true-crime saga in particular feels bizarrely tacked-on, as if Elliott was taking a break in the middle of his emotional turmoil to watch an episode of “Law & Order.”
The actors are all good, and the charged moments between Franco and Harris are the best part of the film. B ut the material isn’t there to support them. Scenes of Elliott’s worst memories – huffing paint cans, his angry dad flipping the kitchen table over – are shot in exquisite slo-mo, turning ugly things into pretty images.
After all this, the film’s lurch at the end towards redemption for even its worst characters feels forced and unearned. Ultimately, I don’t care how faithful “The Adderall Diaries” is to its source material, or how faithful the book is to Elliott’s life. But what’s there on the screen is a mess.