'The Adderall Diaries': Tribeca Review
James Franco can't remember for sure if Ed Harris tortured him or the other way around.
Just as True Story enters its commercial release, James Franco returns to the world of unreliable narrators in The Adderall Diaries, playing a memoirist forced to confront the malleability of his own childhood recollections. Playing Stephen Elliott, the real-world author of the book Pamela Romanowsky adapts here, Franco smolders and argues and gets itchy when trying to write, but the movie comes closest to working only when he's on screen with Ed Harris, who plays his ill-tempered and estranged father. Even these scenes take place in a familiar family-drama format that is much more conventional than Elliott's grab-bag book (a "Memoir of Moods, Masochism, and Murder"), resulting in a sourly unconvincing film that will satisfy only Franco's most devoted fans.
Franco's Elliott is riding high on the success of his memoir of childhood abuse, but is stalled on lucrative follow-up projects by writer's block. After encountering the story of a family man (Christian Slater) accused of killing his wife, Stephen decides this might be his In Cold Blood. ("This could be my In Cold Blood" is also a sentence you'll hear if you see True Story this week.)
He starts going to the trial, where he quickly picks up Lana (Amber Heard), a New York Times crime reporter who appears to have gotten the job through the Times's outreach internship for fashion models in search of more edifying careers. The two start riding around on Stephen's motorcycle and will soon explore his masochistic sexual preferences, but not before he is humiliated in a more public way: Neil Elliott ambushes his son at a book reading, dramatically proving that he's not dead (as the memoir claims), and insisting that the rest of Stephen's story is self-pitying baloney as well. Stephen's career falls apart in a matter of hours, though he's too busy having sex to hear about it until some time later.
Unsatisfying flashbacks to a chaotic youth fill the movie, and as Stephen's memories are challenged — by his father and his old friend Roger (Jim Parrack), and by testimony at the murder trial that triggers him — they grow more skittering and confused. It doesn't help the writer's mental acuity that he's busily stuffing himself with pills and having prostitutes burn him with cigarettes, though these behaviors are perfectly suited to a film that romanticizes self-destructiveness despite seeming to want to preach self-help.
Harris's cut-the-BS delivery of some hard truths splashes cold water on the film toward the end, prompting Stephen to seek to assess his life more honestly. But first-time feature helmer Romanowsky has a hard time distinguishing between the things that draw her to Elliott's story and the things that make him pathetic. In a turning point between Elliott and Lana, for instance, he forces her to choke him nearly to the point of death, revives himself, and immediately tells her for the first time that he loves her. Even in a sympathetic opening-night audience, the confused scene elicited many chuckles. Writing a first-person memoir about your own contradictory and troubled but fascinating personality, is starting to seem a lot easier than making a big-screen adaptation of someone else's.
Production companies: Windowseat Entertainment, Rabbit Bandini
Cast: James Franco, Ed Harris, Amber Heard, Jim Parrack, Timothee Chalamet, Cynthia Nixon, Christian Slater
Director-Screenwriter: Pamela Romanowsky
Based on the book by Stephen Elliott
Producers: Vince Jolivette, James Franco, James Reach, Joseph McKelheer, Marni Zelnick
Executive producers: Leo Kiely, Robert Redford, Bill Kiely, Ryan Dorff
Director of photography: Bruce Thierry Cheung
Production designer: Todd Fjelsted
Costume designer: Brenda Abbandandolo
Editors: Myron Kerstein, Mark Vives
Music: Michael Andrews
Casting directors: Kerry Barden, Paul Schnee
Sales: WME, CAA
No rating, 86 minutes