Dir: Sam Taylor-Johnson. Starring: Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Billy Bob Thornton, Charlie Hunnam, Giovanni Ribisi, David Dastmalchian, and Juliette Lewis. 15 cert, 113 mins
How much responsibility does film have in upholding the truth? It’s a question that should be at the heart of Sam Taylor-Johnson’s adaptation of A Million Little Pieces, James Frey’s notorious bestseller from 2003. At first, the book was sold as a visceral account of Frey’s time in a rehab clinic, and ballooned in popularity after it was picked for Oprah’s Book Club. Then the truth came out: Frey had embellished or flat-out invented many of the experiences described in the book. It became a national scandal. Yet Taylor-Johnson seems largely uninterested in what’s become Frey’s lasting legacy, nodding to it only in an opening quote from Mark Twain: “I’ve lived through some terrible things in my life, some of which actually happened.”
The director’s take is straight, and earnest in tone, but the film is inevitably undone by Frey’s own fabrications. A Million Little Pieces doesn’t ring true. Despite Taylor-Johnson’s best efforts, its story is wrapped up in all the usual twists and turns of an addiction drama, and its characters are painted in the broadest of strokes. Perhaps it doesn’t matter that many of Frey’s experiences were a lie – the problem is that they weren’t even good lies. We first meet Frey (Aaron Taylor-Johnson, who is married to the director and co-wrote its script with her) as he reaches rock bottom. High and stark naked, he thrashes around wildly in the middle of a house party, as everyone else hugs the walls and watches him with bewilderment. Moments later, he’s toppled over the edge of a balcony and face-first into the hood of a car. Bundled onto a plane headed to Minneapolis, Frey is checked into rehab with the help of his fearful brother (Charlie Hunnam). He still seems hostile to the idea.
Taylor-Johnson, certainly, commits to the role of Frey with a kind of bodily ferocity. In the film’s more subversive moments, we see his mind give way to his limbs, submitting himself to strange, almost ritualistic movements, not unlike a dance. It happens when he’s destroying his room in a fit of rage or when slipping on an imaginary torrent of liquid faeces. Several sequences in A Million Little Pieces have an impressionistic quality to them that offer a glimpse of the film its director was clearly capable of making. Here we see addiction interpreted as something purely sensory, more in line with the likes of Trainspotting and Requiem for a Dream.
But those opportunities for genuine originality are rare. Mostly, A Million Little Pieces follows Frey as he receives a series of pep talks from his fellow patients and his caretakers. We’ve seen these characters a hundred times before: Giovanni Ribisi is the flamboyant, but ultimately tragic homosexual; Juliette Lewis is the clear-sighted therapist who slowly breaks down Frey’s walls; and Billy Bob Thornton is the charming, rambunctious father figure with a dark past. The most hollow of them all is Odessa Young’s Lilly. She’s the former sex worker with a heart of gold, who’s dedicated to her grandma and falls hopelessly for Frey. Despite Frey’s own insistence that “she’s a person, not a lesson”, the film treats their illicit romance as nothing more than the final push our hero needs to take his recovery seriously. It’ll be no surprise to learn that Lilly’s very existence is one of the most heavily disputed elements of the original book.
As the film reaches its end, any sense of verisimilitude feels ultimately betrayed by the need for Fry’s journey to exist within a neat arc. He was once an angry, lost man, who has now seen the light and lifted himself out of his troubles. It might be inspiring, sure, but that’s at the cost of one the most crucial realities of addiction: that it’s a battle without victories and without a concrete end. With so many other stories of addiction deserving of their spot on the big screen, it’s hard to imagine why anyone would feel drawn to the lies of A Million Little Pieces.
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A Million Little Pieces is released in UK cinemas on 30 August
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