High-volume film festivals like Tribeca can showcase performers who hover somewhere below the A-list—actors who have enough name recognition to get studio work, but who may have to turn to smaller movies for chances to stretch. Amber Heard may be better-known as an obscure object of desire, both onscreen and in real life as the current paramour of Johnny Depp, but she’s shown appealing toughness in vaguely to extremely disreputable movies like Drive Angry or John Carpenter’s The Ward. In those pictures, she looks like a pin-up with a substantial right hook; in her two Tribeca entries, When I Live My Life Over Again and The Adderrall Diaries, she takes on less bombshelly roles, managing to look like someone you might actually see on the subway (it’s the hair, mostly; she lets it go long and a little unkempt in both).
Despite Christopher Walken receiving top billing, Heard is the unequivocal lead of When I Live My Life Over Again, playing Jude, the daughter of Paul Lombard (Walken), a faux-Italian crooner who substitutes gregarious, self-regarding stories about his colorful past for sensitive parenting. Aspiring singer Jude’s tastes run more rock and roll than Lombard’s, who still laments the way the dominant musical genre of the second half of the twentieth century usurped real singing, by people who didn’t need to write songs. Even as a signpost of his lack of currency, this doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. The movie tries to pass off Lombard’s position in the culture as a Frank Sinatra/Tony Bennett type who was born a little too late and chased his early career success with a variety of pandering (a late-blooming hippie period; a foray into reggae). But factoring in Jude, a thirtyish woman who still rocks flannel and pink-dyed hair and barely seems aware of any post-1994 rock music besides Neko Case, it seems more a glitch in the movie’s perspective, not Lombard’s or his daughters. There’s a mustiness to the movie’s screenplay; the story parameters would’ve made a lot more sense in the mid-90s, when Jude’s bad-attitude idealism (and age) would’ve made her a Generation Xer rather than a millennial.
There are disaffected millennials, of course, just as there are probably over-the-hill romantic crooners who feel disappointed by music made after 1960. But Over Again doesn’t make these characters especially convincing as long as they’re chained to a pair of unproductive dramatic formulas: the “dysfunctional adult family in a house” genre (New Yorker Jude comes out to stay with Lombard on Long Island, with her more successful younger sister nearby) and the “stop blaming everyone else for your problems” genre. Contrivances abound. The movie feels most alive when it pauses for Walken and Heard to sing—not often, but always in full, original songs performed front-to-back. This makes Over Again yet another indie drama that would have done well as something closer to an actual musical. Walken does the old-smoothie speak-singing routine well—his eccentric re-punctuation turns out to be perfect for it—and Heard sounds pretty good, too. Director Robert Edwards dilutes the power of these scenes when he cuts away for reaction shots, but Walken and Heard hint that they could have done well by the good version of this movie.
The Adderall Diaries also concerns a young artist struggling with the past, but Heard is more of a bystander in the real-life story of Stephen Elliott, whose book this movie is based on and, as it happens, chronicles the creation of. It’s not quite a Running with Scissors level of mythologizing, but it comes damn close. Though the movie is kinda-sorta about Elliott (Franco) coming to terms with the unreliability of his memories and the wreckage of his lousy childhood, it nonetheless focuses on the mounting pressure to write a totally meager number of pages in order to preserve some lucrative book deals. Rather than writing his questionably truthful memoir, Elliott gets obsessed with a famous programmer (Christian Slater) on trial for the murder of his wife.
Franco seems pretty obsessed too, not least because he just visited this territory for True Story, where he played a different real-life spouse-murderer opposite Jonah Hill’s disgraced high-rolling writer. It’s as if Franco couldn’t bear to let the other role go; did he propose playing both parts in True Story and jump into Adderall when someone vetoed the idea? Adderall is more self-pitying than True Story, but its frayed edges do mark a nice contrast to its tidy yet vaguely inexplicable counterpart. The fragmented flashbacks toy with perspective, though as much as Elliott seems to want to self-interrogate, his masculinity checklist (motorcycle! Recreational boxing! Tattoos!) goes mostly unquestioned by writer-director Pamela Romanowsky. And Heard, decent as she is playing a New York Times reporter who gets into a passionate but messy relationship with Elliott, winds up coming off like one of those lifestyle accessories. As ever, she brings both grit and glamour to a stock part. But all in all, she’s been better in several of her early, pulpier movies. It turns out that maybe genre cliches can be more freeing than indie ones.
When I Live My Life Over Again plays again tonight; The Adderall Diaries on Sunday the 26th. They also play almost simultaneously on the evening of Saturday, April 25th, which makes a Heard double feature sadly impossible.