James Franco is the new generation’s Nicolas Cage. Even if a movie isn’t great, you can bet it will at least be interesting if Franco is attached. “The Adderall Diaries,” based on the bestselling memoir by author Stephen Elliott, isn’t just interesting — it’s also really good.
I’ve never read any of Elliott’s books so I don’t know how the film will play to an audience of his readers and fans, but you obviously don’t need to be familiar with the source material to enjoy this movie. I knew nothing of the man going into the theater but I loved it. The story revolves one man’s struggle with his past (and current) demons, featuring everything from a bizarre love story to an obsession with a real-life murder trial. It goes without saying that James Franco is perfect for the role. He is one of the few young actors that can pull off a scraggly, damaged literary badass with daddy issues with an air of ultimate believability. Even in his sex scenes (some of which are approaching masochistic levels), Franco looks totally at ease and at home. Nothing feels false in his performance, and that’s an impressive achievement.
The story of a drug addicted troubled writer is one I’ve seen many, many times, but what could’ve (or perhaps should’ve) been another mundane and laborious exploration of creative struggles was given an upgrade largely due to the convincing and talented supporting cast (Cynthia Nixon, Amber Heard, Christian Slater, Ed Harris and Jim Parrack) and the provocative visual style of director Pamela Romanowsky. Everything about the film’s look and feel worked for me (the film’s tone reminded me of one of my all-time favorite Franco vehicles, which ranked at #3 on my Top 10 Best list in 2013, “Spring Breakers“).
Romanowsky has a clear, original artistic vision which materializes through unexpected camera angles, dreamy flashbacks, cool graphics that incorporate Elliott’s written words, and limited use of a musical score. She excels in presenting the author’s muddled memories about childhood loss, parental abuse, homelessness and drug addiction — memories that, over the course of the film, become even more twisted within his own fiction. This is some truly inspired and complex direction, and I can’t wait to see what she does next.
“The Adderall Diaries” isn’t for everybody but if you are a fan of independent film, enjoy contemporary visual styles or are simply a casual moviegoer who loves a challenge, check it out.
“The Adderall Diaries” is a difficult movie to love. It’s partially a semi-autobiographical piece about acclaimed author Stephen Elliott; it’s partially a drug-fueled stupor; it’s partially a true-crime drama; and it’s partially a meditation on the nature of family, love, forgiveness, and memory. Although none of these parts are necessarily bad, they do make up a somewhat disjointed whole that will have trouble connecting with audiences.
The always-enjoyable James Franco plays Stephen Elliott, who is suffering from severe writer’s block and sees his life beginning to unravel after a very public James Frey-esque confrontation about the veracity of the “facts” he presents in a novel. Burdened by ghosts from his past and memories that diverge significantly from those of others who shared the same experiences, Stephen begins to withdraw from his friends, girlfriend, editor, and life aided by Adderall and other chemicals.
Stephen is a hard man to like. His S&M-laden sexual fetishes, proclivity for substance abuse, and extreme cases of selfishness and self-pity make him difficult to relate to, which is a serious problem given that the movie is about him. Stephen has to pull himself out of this pity pit, and only a reconciliation with his estranged father will get him there. It is the strong performances of James Franco, Amber Heard (who plays Stephen’s sometime girlfriend, Lana) and Jim Parrack as Stephen’s best friend Roger, that together save the film from being completely forgettable. Heard and Parrack act as the voices of reason and reality for Stephen, and it is their presence and influence on Stephen that help bring the audience along for the journey.
I generally struggle with movies that rely too heavily upon the drug-induced stupor as a significant story element (“Leaving Las Vegas,” “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas,” and “I Melt With You” come readily to mind), but those scenes are, fortunately, limited in screen time. There are some good story elements here and the film has some interesting things to say — particularly about the nature of memory and how we all fall victim to fooling ourselves through our own false memories — but there are also too many story shifts and poor editing choices to make this film one coherent whole. Too many times I found myself comparing this movie to “The End of the Tour,” the 2015 movie about another well-known author that was much better than this one.
I didn’t hate “The Adderall Diaries,” but I didn’t really like it, either. Which means that I can’t recommend it.