For over a decade, the deceptions and fallacies driving the “memoir” from which Sam Taylor-Johnson’s A Million Little Pieces is based have been well-documented and well-scrutinized. Nevertheless, author James Frey has been awarded an onscreen presentation which, with the exception of a piddling, but apt Mark Twain quote – “I’ve lived through some terrible things in my life, some of which actually happened” – pardons his deceitful intent and inserts itself into the growing pool of films which attempt to explore the horrendous consequences and gripping immobility caused by drug addiction.
This foundation of falsehoods may lend itself very heavily to the film’s own unscrupulous experience; buoyed heavily by rehashed struggles, its overall unoriginality is only occasionally dampened by the wholly dedicated performance from Aaron Taylor-Johnson, the director’s co-writer and husband. He plays the James Frey that the mischievous source author wanted people to come to know. Following an explosive opening, in which James’ overbearing substances launch him into a naked blowout, the addict finds himself on a plane to rehabilitation.
Whilst there, he and A Million Little Pieces embark on a simultaneous journey towards blandness – the damning difference being that the film’s, of course, is not prescribed. James, on the other hand, is a walking miracle. At the tender age of 23, the turmoil his body has endured through crates of narcotics and bottles has forced what’s left of him to run on its final preserves; so much so that even one simple drink could initiate a total and permanent cardiac collapse.
Despite this knowledge, James remains impervious to help. In doing so, he joins a platoon of stubborn onscreen addicts who neither see nor understand the several assisting avenues paved in their direction. And like the central figures in 2018’s Beautiful Boy and Ben is Back, to name only a couple, James’ inability to appreciate the equally-stubborn people there to help – most prominently, his brother Bob (Charlie Hunnam) – is planted at the heart of his reformation.
Though advice from professionals and family struggle to make their mark – despite the rehabilitation center’s almost sanctified reputation – James’ barriers finally start to break apart amongst the grit and the dread of his fellow patients. While a lot of the personalities he bumps into are obnoxiously strong, including a sex-addled and distracting Giovanni Ribisi, there are two who bless James with purpose and conversation. The first is Lilly (Odessa Young), a crack addict who, despite an initial romantic spark, mutually feeds off of the camaraderie formed between them.
The second is Leonard, played prophetically by Billy Bob Thornton. With a silk gray head of hair and matching mustache, Leonard prances around rehab like a wise owl. Having run through the course on more than one occasion, he has the inclination to pick out James as a worthy protégée, taking him under his wing for seemingly no other reason than a glimmer of hope and merit the writer probably didn’t know he was emitting.
To be fair, the viewer probably didn’t know, either. James’ premiere steps during the clinic’s 12-step process are met with nothing more than disdain and indignation; like most of the other patients, he’s done the research; he’s seen the statistics; he knows that the chances of him, or anybody for that matter, making a full recovery are incredibly slim. And as he and the film broadcast this, they each walk across a line between helplessness and necessity.
The pair of Taylor-Johnsons each excavate their own imaginative visions into this primarily internal battle. Sam, whose artistic background coursed through both her directorial debut Nowhere Boy, a John Lennon biopic also starring her then to-be husband, and even her pop-erotic Fifty Shades of Grey adaptation, injects several poetic, obscure, almost Kubrickian flashes of painful memories throughout the nearly two-hour runtime.
However, it’s Aaron’s magnetic lead performance that really vitalizes James’ self-scuffle. While the setting is defined by its pursuit of serenity, Aaron’s body is viciously and convincingly marioneted by James’ unkempt cravings. Despite his numerous subjections to physical pain – including an anesthetic-free root canal and the reframing of a broken nose – Aaron’s ability to externalize his nuclear neuro war is outstanding.
But even with these two satisfactory elements, A Million Little Pieces disappointingly forms a typical rehab story which, given the violently individual experiences bestowed upon drug addicts, is especially tedious.
While its well-founded intentions and creative intuitions are palpable, not even a tortuously acrobatic performance from Aaron Taylor-Johnson saves A Million Little Pieces from consistently sober storytelling.