The journey of “A Million Little Pieces” has been anything but dull.
James Frey’s 2003 “memoir” was a drug-and-alcohol-addiction sensation until it was revealed in 2006 that the author made a lot of it up. It’s “the essential truth!,” he rebutted after journalists exposed his fabrications.
Well, readers — and more importantly, Oprah — were essentially miffed that they’d been duped by a man they believed was honestly exposing his struggles. The story exploded and Frey’s career imploded. With all that headline-making drama, it’s a shame the tale ends with a film adaptation that’s destined to be an afterthought.
The mediocrity is not entirely director Sam Taylor-Johnson’s fault. When Frey’s book was published, addiction wasn’t being discussed as often as it is now. The US is enduring an opioid crisis, and a slew of films have dealt with substance abuse since, such as “Ben Is Back,” “Beautiful Boy” and “White Boy Rick.” They’re all better and more moving.
The one detail that sets “Pieces” apart is its opening. After a night of partying, main character James (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) wakes up on an airplane not knowing where he is. Scary stuff. He orders a whiskey from the flight attendant. “Sir, I’m not allowed to give you any alcohol,” she says. “Says who?” James replies. “The doctor who carried you on the plane.”
Bruised, bleeding and looking like crap, James arrives in Chicago and is taken by his brother (Charlie Hunnam) to a 12-step program rehab facility. At that moment, “Pieces” becomes just like every other addiction film, relying on colorful addict characters and torture-porn scenes to arrive at a hopeful end.
We wince as James has his nose painfully broken by a doctor to be reset, gets his teeth drilled without any Novocaine and repeatedly vomits like Old Faithful. It’s too much. As is the way he constantly destroys everything in sight and picks needless fights with fellow patients such as Billy Bob Thornton’s Leonard and Giovanni Ribisi’s gay John. There’s also an uncomfortable amount of nudity here. Which of the 12 steps is full frontal?
Aaron Taylor-Johnson, whose wife is the director, makes an impressive physical transition going from a walking scab to handsome chap. Emotionally, however, he’s one-note, quietly gargling his lines. James’ inner life and his experience is made up of a million little pieces, but in this flat film we get just one.