Sunday 15 September 2019

A Million Little Pieces review: 'Aaron Taylor Johnson digging deeper than he’s ever done'

3 stars

Red mist: Aaron Taylor-Johnson as James Frey in A Million Little Pieces
Red mist: Aaron Taylor-Johnson as James Frey in A Million Little Pieces

Chris Wasser

‘I’ve lived through some terrible things in my life, some of which actually happened.” Mark Twain there, at his slippery and sardonic best. It’s that very quote that opens Sam Taylor-Johnson’s A Million Little Pieces.

Indeed, even those that have never read the James Frey best-seller, from which this searing adaptation takes its cue, must surely have taken note of the global fracas that occurred back in 2006, when it transpired that Frey — who’d presented readers with a deeply personal account of one man’s return from the brink of a debilitating alcohol and drug addiction — had been telling porkies.

Long story short, Frey had not only exaggerated parts of his own story, but had, essentially, made a lot of it up. And that would have been fine, had A Million Little Pieces been marketed and sold as a novel. But it was supposed to be a memoir. The aftermath was ugly. Frey had rubbed a lot of folks up the wrong way, chief among them, the all-powerful Oprah Winfrey, who had publicly endorsed Frey’s ‘memoir’ on her show. Do we really need to tell you what happens when you get on the wrong side of Oprah?

If anything, the entire fiasco would make for a fascinating documentary. For now, though, it is this intriguing, late-in-the-day adaptation of Frey’s semi-fictional novel — courtesy of director and co-writer Sam Taylor-Johnson (Nowhere Boy), and starring her screenwriting partner, and actor husband, Aaron Taylor-Johnson — that concerns us. Oh, and the only ‘reference’ the Taylor-Johnsons’ film makes to the aforementioned controversy is that mischievous Mark Twain quote in the opening scene. Well played, lads.

Aaron Taylor-Johnson is James Frey, a 20-something alcoholic and crack addict, and a wanted man in three states, who has just woken up on an airplane, with cuts and bruises on his face, vomit down his shirt, and zero recollection of how he got there. Back on the ground, James’s brother, Bob (Charlie Hunnam), collects him at the airport, and drives him to a private rehabilitation centre in Minnesota. Now, James insists he is fine. There are signs that the boys may have been here before. After some heavy persuasion, James eventually gives in.

The first few days are torturous. James literally kicks and screams his way into corners, almost giving up, but eventually finding a guardian angel in the form of the amiable Leonard (Billy Bob Thornton), a fellow patient, and a comical gangster figure, armed with all the best advice. There are others. Juliette Lewis plays the obligatory, compassionate doctor of the tale. Odessa Young is Lilly, a fellow addict, who falls head over heels for our boy. The only problem is, Lilly and James are forbidden from communicating with each other. Guess what happens there.

Slow, powerful and melodramatic, A Million Little Pieces is a peculiar little film. It is, essentially, a Hallmark feature with notions. Yes, it does, indeed, adhere to a formulaic, disease-of-the-week, three-act structure.

You know where it’s going. Every ‘twist’ is signposted from a mile out. But my goodness, it certainly doesn’t hold back from displaying the harsh and horrible realities of addiction. A scene in which Frey undergoes root canal surgery sans anaesthesia is particularly gruelling.

Sam Taylor-Johnson hits us hard with the visuals, and there are moments when A Million Little Pieces edges dangerously close to theatrical music video. But at least some effort is being made to separate what is, effectively, a run-of-the-mill rehab picture, from every other run-of-the-mill rehab picture. Meanwhile, Aaron Taylor-Johnson is both vulnerable and electric — often in the same scene. We have, in the past, questioned this chap’s range and ability, but here, he’s digging deeper than he’s ever done.

Oh, and we need to mention Billy Bob Thornton, a quiet, funny and magnetic performer who steals every scene that he’s in. This film is lucky to have him.

Read more: ‘It felt like we had everything against us’ - Aaron Taylor Johnson on adapting James Frey’s controversial memoir with wife Sam

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