If you dial your memory reel back a few years, you may remember the controversy surrounding James Frey’s “autobiography” A Million Little Pieces. Oprah, having endorsed the book, came down particularly hard on him for fabricating many of the juiciest bits of the book.
Stephen Elliott is a lesser-known memoirist with a similar fate: one night at a reading for his book in which he details the death of his mother, his father’s abuse, the group homes and addictions, living on the streets, and ultimately his father’s death as well, his father stands up from the crowd and declares himself alive.
Hm. Okay. Elliott’s publisher and agent are not terribly impressed. Book deals crumble. His integrity’s in shambles. And so he falls down a deep dark hole called writer’s block.
Before we move on, let me just state: all of this may or may not be true of the real Stephen Elliott. Elliott’s a real guy who sold the rights to The Adderall Diaries to James Franco for a good heap of money, but has since said that the material is so altered it seems strange, and dishonest, that they still call the character by his name.
Elliott’s father did heckle him at a book reading though. And he left a nasty trail of Amazon reviews to Elliott’s books. Their relationship is certainly strained, and now matter how you slice the cake, the dude has been through some shit. Writing has helped him cope, acting as a release valve for all the hurt and anger he carries around.
When faced with a bad case of writer’s block, Elliott dealt with it by a) taking Adderall, a drug for people with ADHD and b) attending the murder trial of Hans Reiser, who used a “nerd defense” to no effect and was convicted of murdering his wife. The book is subtitled A Memoir of Moods, Masochism, and Murder, and all three are are intertwined messily in the film.
Lots of famous faces lined up to take part in The Adderall Diaries: Franco as Elliott of course; Amber Heard as his girlfriend; Cynthia Nixon as his agent; Ed Harris as his father; Christian Slater as the accused murderer. Unfortunately, the “story”, such as it were, is a jumbled mess, and you can’t make much sense of the conflicting plot lines. And James Franco just wants to swagger through it all, convinced it’s his chance to play a badass in a leather jacket when actually he’s supposed to be playing a man stunted with pain.
The film, Pamela Romanowsky’s directorial debut, neglects to make much of an impact, though it does have some interesting stuff to say about trauma’s effect on memory. But on true crime, family, forgiveness, and addiction it widely misses the mark. It’s too bad. I think there was a better film in there somewhere, between the daddy issues and the flouncy flashbacks. But it just feels ironic that a book about “retrieving memories and reordering information” gets a movie treatment that illustrates how slippery truth can be by obscuring the most basic of facts.
You can watch The Adderall Diaries on Netflix, and judge for yourself, but be warned: the only thing more subjective than truth is art.