Before there was James Frey, there was Stephen Elliott. Two years before Frey’s bestselling, Oprah-approved “A Million Little Pieces” hit shelves in 2003 (only to be notoriously debunked three years later), Elliott’s “A Life Without Consequences” arrived. A mish-mash of memoir and autobiography and fiction and imagination, Elliott’s book detailed his (or was it his? the details are muddy and they stay muddy) childhood experiences of abuse, deprivation, homelessness, and drug addiction. That not all of it was exactly true wasn’t the points— and, Elliott, who continues to write fiction and non-fiction, both on the printed page and on the web, doesn’t argue that — but it is the crux of Pamela Romanowsky’s “The Adderall Diaries,” the filmmaker’s feature film version of Elliott’s 2010 “memoir” of the same name.
In “The Adderall Diaries,” Stephen’s (James Franco) first book is called “A Part,” but while it bears a different title, it’s clearly just a substitute for “A Life Without Consequences” — and it’s those details that dismantle and nearly destroy Stephen, riding high on his success, when their lack of veracity is revealed. Franco’s Stephen is a hip, swaggering Brooklyn writer, the kind of guy who tools around on his motorcycle and swills booze with his bros at local dive bars just as regularly as he actually sits down to work (Franco is relaxed in the role, believable and compelling without falling into big actor-y tricks). With a bevy of projects in the works, from a teaching gig at Columbia to a short story collection to a new memoir, Stephen has the world on a string, and it’s all about to unravel.
“I know I’m guilty of editing,” Stephen writes early in the film, before erasing the words and replacing them with some platitudes on memory that neatly avoid placing the blame for “editing” (or, well, lying) on anyone in particular, especially Stephen. “The Adderall Diaries” is about the unreliability of memory, how things can bend and change with time, and how, for someone who makes their living sharing their memories, lying may actually be unavoidable and inevitable. When part of Stephen’s “A Part” is revealed to be a lie — his “dead” dad, an abusive bastard played effectively by Ed Harris, shows up at a swanky book reading and proclaims his identity just as Stephen is reading his own lies about the day his father passed away — his entire existence is thrown into turmoil. For a guy whose entire career is built on sharing his previous problems, that’s saying a lot.
Desperate to reestablish himself, the already obsessive Stephen latches on to a variety of new things, including a local murder trial (a true story that has been retrofitted to fit the film’s New York City location) and a pretty reporter who is covering the case (Amber Heard, who is unfortunately saddled with a depressing dark wig that does nothing but hide her face and obscure a mostly lovely performance). Stephen’s obsession with the trial of Hans Reiser (Christian Slater, who refuses to age a day) illuminates his obsession with his father, and as the trial unfolds, Romanowsky effectively shows the ways that the Reisers’ and the Elliotts’ perceived idylls intertwine, at least in Stephen’s addled brain.
The real-life Elliott’s attachment to the Reiser case is far more complicated than Romanowsky’s screenplay lets on, but the filmmaker has admirably distilled it down to something better suited to the screen and the film’s zippy 87-minute runtime. “The Adderall Diaries” is shot through with dreamy flashbacks from Stephen’s childhood (both good stuff and not so good stuff), and when video from the Reiser family’s pre-murder life unspools at the trial, it hits the screen with the same hazy, vague quality that establishes the film’s copious memories and flashbacks. Stephen, grasping at connections, sees himself and his father in Hans, and begins to believe that if he can somehow untangle the mystery of the Reiser case, he can similarly make sense of his own life.
It’s an unreliable theory, but Romanowsky and Franco sell it. Stephen isn’t a nice guy, given to selfishness and self-absorption, and “The Adderall Diaries” doesn’t attempt to obscure that, it only wants to illuminate why it may be so. Stretched truth and bunched up memories aside, Stephen is clearly damaged, and Franco mines that in an unflashy and unsentimental way. Romanowksy has gamely hacked through Elliott’s purposely messy and tangential material to craft a workable portrait of pain and addiction, one that’s bizarrely entertaining even in its most brutal moments, good enough for at least one hit. [B]