Even if you haven’t actually read “A Million Little Pieces,” you’ve likely heard of it. A runaway bestseller and Oprah’s Book Club selection first released in 2003, James Frey’s purported memoir became a literary scandal when it was revealed to have been largely fabricated; the ensuing controversy saw Random House offer refunds and Oprah excoriate Frey on live television.
Sam Taylor-Johnson and Aaron Taylor-Johnson have made a film adaptation of the book well over a decade later, collaborating on the script with her behind the camera and him in front of it. To say that the filmmakers didn’t strike while the iron was hot would be an understatement, but the film isn’t entirely without its merits.
You know the setup: our substance-abusing hero hits rock bottom, gets sent to rehab despite refusing to admit he has a problem, makes life miserable for everyone trying to help him, learns lessons from a rough-around-the-edges elder (Billy Bob Thornton), and eventually gets his act together in a way that’s optimistic without feeling untrue to the preceding bleakness. There’s a lot of vomit and conflict along the way, with both Taylor-Johnsons ramping up the drama to make any kind of redemption feel as unlikely as possible.
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There’s a problem with that, of course. Making a recovery movie is like making a boxing movie: The formula is so well established that the most viewers can hope for is a slight variation on a familiar theme. “A Million Little Pieces” delivers that, but may leave you wondering whether it could have endeavored to do more.
Having previously directed the likes of “Nowhere Boy” (where she and her now-husband-collaborator first met) and “Fifty Shades of Grey,” Sam Taylor-Johnson is one of those talented filmmakers whose projects rarely live up to her potential. Here she does her utmost to bring out the material’s heavy-hitting impact without overdoing it, a difficult balancing act that requires a great deal of nimbleness on her part. She succeeds in making the film wrenching but not unbearable, something her leading man helps with greatly.
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This version of James Frey is first seen losing his mind on drugs at a party before waking up bruised and bloodied on a plane he has no memory of boarding, where he’s told by a flight attendant that the doctor who dragged him on forbade her from serving him alcohol. Stubborn, difficult, and generally unpleasant, he insults his fellow patients at the rehab facility his family (including a brother played by Charlie Hunnam) has bankrolled and undermines his doctors’ attempts to help him — if not quite enough to make us believe they won’t eventually succeed.
The best moment comes when Frey asks one of those doctors (Juliette Lewis) a question we somehow haven’t heard before in a movie of this kind: Does she really expect him never to drink or do drugs again? “I love crack,” he says. “I f–king love it.” Even those of us who’ve never partaken in that particular vice can relate; how difficult would we find it to give up our favorite food for the rest of our lives?
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Elsewhere, though, the film plays it by the numbers. It begins with a quotation attributed to Mark Twain that he never actually wrote, which is apropos, however unintentional of the whole saga: “I’ve lived through some terrible things in my life, some of which actually happened.” As a film, the biggest issue with “A Million Little Pieces” isn’t whether any of this happened; it’s that, even if it did, none of it stands out from the many similar movies that came before it.