To combat the long festering consequences of childhood trauma, James Franco’s character in The Adderall Diaries, Stephen Elliott turns to any number of distractions. He dilutes his pain with drug abuse, copious sexual encounters and even wayfaring creative pursuits. We meet Elliott, a nonfiction author suffering from writer’s block, just as he begins to deviate from focus on his proposed memoir to a strange family’s high-profile courtroom battle. Whereas this defense mechanism functions as tantamount to lifeblood for Franco’s character, it’s damn near toxic to The Adderall Diaries itself. (It eventually ends up proving toxic to Elliott, too, as anyone who’s taken a psych class would presume—the process is a lot quicker when it comes to the film).
We’re assured from the get-go that the meat of Elliott’s story, no matter what tangent it may occupy at any given time, lies in his latent bondage to his mother’s death and father’s subsequent abusiveness. As such, it almost feels like bad sleight-of-hand when The Adderall Diaries misdirects our attention toward rocky romantic relationships and, more inscrutably, the writer’s out-of-nowhere fascination with the aforementioned flavor-of-the-week murder trial. In fact, so unsubstantiated is Elliott’s consuming interest in the case that he actually shrugs in lieu of an answer when asked by a friend why he’s suddenly become so interested.
Elliott may be able to pull the wool over the eyes of his friends, colleagues, and—most importantly—himself in devoting himself to such pastimes, but The Adderall Diaries fails to achieve the same mystification over its audience. Granted, the movie doesn’t exactly veer off on these subplots at the expense of its central story. It’s not as though there’s too little time afforded to the emotional ringer through which Elliott and his long estranged father (Ed Harris) force one another; it’s simply that there doesn’t ever seem to be quite a good enough reason for the movie to be telling more than one story.
When The Adderall Diaries does allow Elliott psychological access to his inner demons, and personal contact with his comparably emotionally erratic dad, it gets its wheels turning just a bit. Neither Franco nor Harris is giving anything close to his most interesting performance in this picture, though glimmers of each actor’s charm cannot help but peer through when the material reaches peak rawness. What they have to work with is not entirely without pulp; yes, the episodes of contention between the damaged alpha males more often than not turn up overwrought.
But at some points in director Pamela Romanowsky’s dissection of the pair’s tattered rapport, we find inklings of what may have fueled a richer story. Themes about displaced blame and selective memory are inherently valuable, but not when strung in front of the audience like a carrot just beyond reach.
Ultimately, it seems as though The Adderall Diaries doesn’t trust that its main character is truly interesting—funny (or, perhaps, apropos) considering the fact that the film is based on the memoir of the real life Stephen Elliott. Instead of allowing its viewers to develop an intimate rapport with the struggling artist, The Adderall Diaries ransacks the proverbial bag of writer tricks to drag us along on the promise of, “Just wait ‘til you see what happens next!”
We’re couriered through dark romances and parallel crime thrillers, likewise through big reveals and manic twists, all toward the end of painting Elliott as a man of surprise and intrigue. Meanwhile, we might well have gotten to know him as a character of true interest had we been allowed to spend time with him authentically from the get-go. Even if Elliott himself wasn’t sure exactly who he was or what he was doing, The Adderall Diaries doesn’t have to keep us in the dark.
Much like its main character, The Adderall Diaries is too distracted with crime and romance to understand what's really important.