James Franco works so prolifically these days that he’s bound to repeat himself now and again: In “The Adderall Diaries,” for example, he chalks up his second performance this year as an emotionally and creatively blocked writer processing profound reserves of trauma. Sadly, Pamela Romanowsky’s jumbled, affected adaptation of Stephen Elliott’s autobiographical 2009 book is no more enticing a showcase for its producer-star’s wounded-intellectual side than Wim Wenders’s inert “Every Thing Will Be Fine.” As in that film, Franco’s cultivated impenetrability makes for a pain-ridden but peculiarly passionless experience, with multiple clashing subplots — on such insufficiently explored themes as parental abuse, uxoricide and masochism — obstructing an already opaque character study. A name-filled ensemble might attract boutique distributor attention to Romanowsky’s debut feature, though theatrical exposure will be minimal.
Via his production imprint Rabbit Bandini, Franco deserves credit for enabling and championing young female voices on the U.S. independent scene: Romanowsky, an NYU grad-school cohort of his, was tapped by the actor to write and helm this project after she contributed to his ambitious 2012 portmanteau project “The Color of Time.” While there are flashes of inchoate visual and sonic artistry to Romanowsky’s direction, she arrives to feature filmmaking a less assured stylist than Gia Coppola, who adapted Franco’s own writing with such poise in “Palo Alto.”
With its heavy image processing and injudicious use of slo-mo, there’s a certain student-film quality to “The Adderall Diaries” that neither masters nor disciplines the complex, eccentric sprawl of the source material. Subtitled “A Memoir of Moods, Murder and Masochism,” Elliott’s book began as an “In Cold Blood”-style account of the sensational Nina Reiser murder trial, before turning its gaze inward to the author’s own tortured personal history.
If that’s a tricky structural backflip to master on the page, Elliott’s agitated authorial perspective is harder still to convey coherently on film. Romanowsky is to be commended for avoiding the obvious route of copious first-person voiceover in favor of a more impressionistic approach, but emulating a stream-of-consciousness literary format with abrupt flashbacks and ambient interludes isn’t the ideal alternative: As inhabited by Franco, Elliott hasn’t a chance to come into focus as a storyteller before the film begins clouding and questioning his point of view. As his internal chaos peaks, the blue-and-magenta lighting schemes of Bruce Thierry Cheung’s artfully scuzzy lensing reach saturation point, while Michael Andrews’ rock-inflected score buzzes to fever pitch. Human shading, however, remains in short supply.
At the outset of the film, Elliott is riding high on the surprise success of an acclaimed misery memoir, detailing his history of drug abuse, the early death of his mother and the violent, negligent parenting of his father Neil (Ed Harris, in full bellow), whom he claims to be deceased as well. Egged on by his hard-nosed editor Jen (Cynthia Nixon), Elliott secures a cushy publishing deal for a follow-up, upon which he almost immediately finds himself stymied by writer’s block. (An author doesn’t tend to spill his guts with a sequel in mind, after all.) To make matters far worse, Neil turns up at one of Elliott’s readings — alive, well and belligerently denying the book’s bleakest claims.
With his career hanging in the balance, Elliott retreats from public life, instead becoming fixated on Hans Reiser (Christian Slater), the wealthy computer entrepreneur and family man accused of murdering his seemingly ideal trophy wife. “We’re all victims of our fathers,” he observes, helpfully spelling out the connection between his interest in this lurid case and his own grim family history — though his analysis, and with it the film’s, goes no deeper than that.
Besides, something else has caught his attention at the trial: solemnly beautiful New York Times crime reporter Lana (a stifled Amber Heard), whose allegedly grueling job at least affords her plenty of time for kinky frolics and moody midnight motorcycle rides with our tormented hero. (Perhaps Elliott’s writer’s block is contagious: We never see her compose one word onscreen.) It’s a little dispiriting to see a female writer-director formulating this vapid fantasy figure, though at least Lana’s male counterparts aren’t notably more developed.
There’s a little more fire to the testy relationship between Elliott and Neil, not least because Harris attacks the role with such broad, salty bravado, though its semi-cathartic arc is telegraphed early on in proceedings. The repetitive content and stylization of the childhood flashback sequences at first seem unilluminating, until Elliott’s proven unreliability as a narrator of his own life story suggests they may indeed be limited, fragmentary constructions. That might be Romanowsky’s slyest directorial gambit, but her protagonist remains a frustratingly unknown quantity to the very end — and not a terribly alluring one, with Franco, an earnestly committed actor on his best form, dolefully impassive in the role. “I want to cast myself as someone else this time — someone better,” he mumbles as “The Adderall Diaries” seeks a redemptive close. One rather sees his point.