James Frey has a fascinating story. Unfortunately for him, the most fascinating (and factual) part of that story didn’t start until after he published his best-selling, Oprah-endorsed 2003 memoir about his substance addiction and subsequent rehab, “A Million Little Pieces.” Only in January 2006, when an investigative report called “A Million Little Lies” alleged that Frey had fabricated many of the details in his book, did his true legacy begin to take shape.
But while some were quick to call it a scandal and throw the baby out with the bathwater, film people were perhaps a bit more forgiving; we work in a medium that’s dependent upon illusion, and intrinsically encourages storytellers to pursue truth even at the expense of facts. Werner Herzog might argue that, if “A Million Little Pieces” was helpful or inspiring for the addicts who needed it most, then a few embellishments are a small price to pay. In other words, it’s somewhat understandable why — even after all of the controversy — Sam and Aaron Taylor-Johnson were still interested in adapting the book to the screen. Yes, a James Frey biopic that ends when he gets out of treatment is sort of like a Milli Vanilli biopic that ends when they win the Grammy for Best New Artist, but there’s nothing inherently wrong about that approach. Judging by the dull and generic film the Taylor-Johnsons have made from Frey’s memoir, there’s nothing inherently right about it, either.
The film’s only nod to the book’s impropriety comes in the form of a Mark Twain quote at the start: “I’ve lived through some terrible things in my life, some of which actually happened.” It’s a shame the Taylor-Johnsons didn’t heed another Twain quote about the virtues of inventing things out of whole cloth: “Truth is stranger than fiction, but it is because fiction is obliged to stick to possibilities; truth isn’t.” Despite being granted creative license to tweak Frey’s “experience” however they saw fit, their version of the story unbound from the facts and the overwrought narrative that Frey invented from them, the “50 Shades of Grey” director and her movie-star husband have delivered an adaptation that’s little more than a watered-down version of a story that’s already lost so much of its original consistency.
Aaron Taylor-Johnson plays Frey as an angry young man in the early ’90s who’s tried all the wrong methods to control the rage burning inside him. The opening scene finds him thrashing around a house party naked and high out of his mind; everyone else in the room keeps their distance from the ongoing trainwreck, watching from afar as Frey slips over a bannister and plummets onto the hood of the car below. He comes to on a plane, so fucked up that he doesn’t even know where it’s going. His face is smashed to bits. When the flight lands in Minneapolis, Frey his picked up by his put-together brother (Charlie Hunnam) and driven straight to rehab. So begins a morbidly funny but familiar tale of addiction and recovery that would still feel a bit false even if it weren’t based on lies.
Originality is tricky when it comes to stories about addiction, because addiction essentially whittles everyone who suffers from it down to the same thing. As a result, the genre places a special emphasis on specificity — the singular details of a shared ordeal — and so it’s not surprising that “A Million Little Pieces” works best when it leans into the little things. Frey is a standard-issue junkie, mean to everyone who tries to help him, but suffering has a way of making people feel like pioneers, and the film sometimes manages to capture how unique pain can feel.
One memorable scene finds Frey going to the dentist for extensive oral surgery, only he’s not allowed any painkillers because the drugs might spark a relapse (and his body is so weak that even a single drink could kill him). While Sam Taylor-Johnson shoots most of the movie with a crisp, soft-focus approach that prioritizes isolation and sensitivity above all else, she frames this scene with a Gilliam-esque off-kilter glee. Like much of the recovery process, it’s horrifying, but you almost have to laugh. Other fantastical elements pop up here and there in an effort to bring us a bit deeper inside Frey’s head (e.g. rivers of mud run down the hallway when he walks into rehab), but they’re too random and sporadic to offer much insight.
Some characters also stand out from the usual assortment of stereotypes. Juliette Lewis is completely wasted as the resident psychologist, Hunnam isn’t able to make anything of his three scenes, and the less said about the gay panic built into Giovanni Ribisi’s character the better, but David Dastmalchian (a striking presence in films like “Prisoners” and “Relaxer”) steals the first act of the movie as a preening resident with problems of his own. Always a welcome presence, Dash Mihok brings real soul to his performance as Frey’s group supervisor, and Billy Bob Thornton is phenomenal as Leonard, an amiable father figure whose happy-go-lucky attitude hides a history of violence. Aaron Taylor-Johnson works hard to hint at all the deep-seated pain the film doesn’t make time to explore — Sam Taylor-Johnson uses physical pain and her lead actor’s frequently naked body to infer all sorts of raw vulnerability — but the scenes between Frey and Leonard only expose how blank and underwritten the former comes across.
When Frey meets a former prostitute named Lilly (Odessa Young, of “Assassination Nation” infamy), the only girl in rehab who makes him want to break the facility’s rule about fraternizing with the opposite sex, he’s reminded that “she’s a person, not a lesson.” Which is funny, because the film definitely uses her tragic story as a lesson, and funnier still because — thanks to how Frey played with the facts — she may not have even been a person.
The film’s emphasis on the forbidden romance that blossoms between these two characters is as hard to sit through as it is to justify. Each of the scenes they share together feel like they could only happen in a movie, and all come at the expense of deepening Frey’s relationship with his brother, or with the ex-girlfriend he betrayed, or even with his own demons. The focus here is so out of whack, so determined to push towards a nice little story of a man hitting bottom and strangers lifting him up, that even the part where Frey discovers his “gift” for writing is rushed and inconclusive. It may not have been wrong to make a straightforward adaptation of “A Million Little Pieces,” but this movie makes the approach seem even worse than that: It makes it seem pointless.
“A Million Little Pieces” premiered at the 2018 Toronto International Film Festival. It is currently seeking U.S. distribution.