The disconcerting elephant in the room — or on the screen — in Sam Taylor-Johnson’s adaptation of James Frey’s 2003 addiction memoir, A Million Little Pieces, is the decision to omit the author’s exposure, after ruling the nonfiction best-seller charts, for having fabricated large parts of his story. That choice clouds the air as Frey, played with raw physicality by the director’s husband and co-screenwriter, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, gradually evolves from a nihilistic train wreck to an ennobled figure of integrity, compassion and hard-won self-control. It gives this artfully grungy feature the unpleasant whiff of a vanity project.
Frequently getting naked to display a taut sinewy body — that according to a medic in the story has undergone massive internal organ damage and is one bender away from cardiac arrest — Aaron Taylor-Johnson’s James goes from sparking up a crack pipe and dancing with wild abandon to attacking the furniture and even an innocent sapling at the rehab facility where he’s sent. This is the kind of brutally balletic performance art that many male actors can’t get enough of. So what if the only character development to tell us who this damaged man is comes near the end of the movie, when we’re beyond caring. It’s those viscerally charged explosions that count, right?
Fifty shades of Frey.
Well, not so much. Without emotional involvement in the central character’s redemptive journey from darkness into light, A Million Little Pieces is just another grueling yet mechanical round of self-destructive degradation followed by begrudging accountability and cleansed deliverance that has little to add to the crowded field of addiction dramas. Even with all the fussy directorial flourishes that artist-turned-filmmaker Sam Taylor-Johnson has pasted onto it. Who is this movie for? Beyond the couple who made it, I have no idea.
The director’s pleasing first film, Nowhere Boy, in which her future husband played the young John Lennon, was imperfect but had dramatic restraint and genuine character curiosity. This third feature, while it is proficiently made and decently acted, has more in common with the egregiously empty Fifty Shades of Grey. It’s a punishing junkie’s Stations of the Cross that’s way too much of a pose to earn either its agonies or its epiphanies. In a dialogue-driven scene late in the movie, James and Lilly (Odessa Young), a troubled young woman with whom he’s been breaking the rehab rules by commingling, do a shuffling dance around one another the entire time they’re talking. That’s typical of an approach that too often calls attention to itself to allow for real immersion in the drama.
The closest the movie comes to acknowledging the controversy over Frey’s embellishment of the truth is the Mark Twain quote used at the start: “I’ve lived through some terrible things in my life, some of which actually happened.” It then jumps right in at the deep end in 1993 as the exuberantly high James goes tumbling off a balcony at a drug party. He awakes banged up and disoriented on a plane, and learns that he was put on board by a doctor who strictly forbade the flight attendants from serving him alcohol. But he swipes and guzzles a whiskey from the cart, with the desperation of a drowning man.
James’ concerned brother Bob (Charlie Hunnam) retrieves him from the Minneapolis airport and delivers him to a rehab facility, where he immediately starts seeing sludge — or is it excrement? — oozing out of the walls. Cue the actor slipping and sliding around in it in a careening athletic display, presumably because the Taylor-Johnsons dug Trainspotting. There’s also a backed-up toilet scene later for good measure.
The script then goes through the familiar paces of the genre as James is read the rules and proceeds to break most of them. He’s in denial about being an addict or needing to kick crack for his own survival, so he rejects the efforts of fellow patient Leonard (Billy Bob Thornton, rocking the wardrobe of a man stuck in the ’70s) to reach out and help. Likewise the 12-step jargon of resident therapist Joanne (Juliette Lewis), especially because he’s an atheist and it involves God. The advances of another patient, John (Giovanni Ribisi), who bills himself as a sexual ninja, also get a firm no, though they allow Taylor-Johnson to let it all hang out again in a shower scene. The only person to whom James gravitates is the flirtatious Lilly, whose bruising past puts his to shame. Or at least what we know of it.
Along with a darkly trippy score by Nine Inch Nails’ Atticus Ross, his wife Claudia Sarne and brother Leopold Ross, the director layers in a busy selection of song choices to create texture. But she hasn’t found a way to bring dramatic momentum to repetitive scenes in which James shows up for required meetings, either group or individual sessions, and then stomps out with Brando-esque volatility. Even a gruesome dental repair job, performed without anesthetic according to rehab requirements, does little to make you feel for the central character.
Inevitably, all the solemn speeches about putting distance between himself and the man he used to be break through, particularly the words of Leonard. And James rejects the attempts of his brother to participate in the intervention, realizing he needs to do it on his own. The first big test comes when Lilly discharges herself, ostensibly to go see her sick grandmother in Chicago, and James hotfoots it to rescue her from a crack den.
But all this is numbingly familiar, inviting minimal investment in James’ struggle. Or anyone else’s, for that matter. Leonard refers to the patients as “my crazy fuckin’ family,” but the individual characters are drawn without much lived-in authenticity and their shared battle scars as a group are more talked about than felt.
When James nears completion of the program, he sits on a bench in the garden and takes inventory of the various signposts of his spiraling addiction going back to age 4, while his younger selves appear around him sneering and twitching. The only other glimpses of who he was come in woozy flashes of a distraught girlfriend he left behind. But these touches are all too characteristic of a movie that favors aesthetic effect over psychological or emotional exploration.
Had there been some sort of coda hinting at the seductive ego trip that prompted Frey to sell an exaggerated version of his experience as cold hard fact, there might have been something distinctive here worth biting into. Instead, there are only cliches for the star to chew on.
Production companies: MakeReady, SnoopSquirrel, The Picture Company, 3Blackout, Federal Films
Cast: Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Billy Bob Thornton, Odessa Young, Giovanni Ribisi, Juliette Lewis, Dash Mihok, Charles Parnell, Ryan Hurst, David Dastmalchian, Tom Amandes, Charlie Hunnam
Director: Sam Taylor-Johnson
Screenwriters: Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Sam Taylor-Johnson, based on the book by James Frey
Producers: Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Sam Taylor-Johnson, Brad Weston, Pamela Abdy, Andrew Rona, Alex Heineman
Executive producers: James Frey, Dara Weintraub, Todd Cohen, David Krintzman, Monte Lipman, Dana Sano
Director of photography: Jeff Cronenweth
Production designer: David J. Bomba
Costume designer: Mary Claire Hannan
Music: Atticus Ross, Leopold Ross, Claudia Sarne
Editor: Martin Pensa
Casting: Francine Maisler, Kathy Driscoll-Mohler
Venue: Toronto International Film Festival (Special Presentations)
Sales: CAA, Sierra/Affinity