If we didn’t know what we already know about James Frey’s A Million Little Pieces, Sam and Aaron Taylor-Johnson’s adaptation of the memoir would be pretty slick. Sam Taylor-Johnson’s direction is straightforward but sympathetic, effectively contrasting the bureaucratic nature of a rehabilitation facility with the intimacy developed by its inhabitants. Aaron Taylor-Johnson dials back the manic, malignant energy of recent performances in Nocturnal Animals and Outlaw King for something a little softer, more prone to bursts of relentless anger and restless self-pity than a steady stream of either. But: It is impossible to overlook that this adaptation of Frey’s work takes the memoir as fact, without adding in any self-awareness on the protagonist’s part or doubt on the narrative’s part, aside from a Mark Twain intertitle at the very beginning (“I’ve lived through some terrible things in my life, some of which actually happened”). I’m usually all for a faithful adaptation of a book (ahem, have you been reading my skeptical recaps of the His Dark Materials series?), but A Million Little Pieces needed more than a rigid recreation.
Aaron Taylor-Johnson stars as James Frey, a 23-year-old who begins the film smoking crack, dancing vigorously (sometimes naked — there is a lot of ATJ full frontal in this film) — and partying with people who don’t seem to have any idea who he is. Venturing outside to smoke a cigarette, James leans on a balcony and falls over it, waking up looking like hell on an airplane to Minneapolis. Everyone knows James has a problem: the doctor who put him on the plane; the flight attendant who refuses to serve him any alcohol; his brother Bob, played by Charlie Hunnam in seemingly only one outfit, who picks James up from the airport and drives him to rehab; the facility’s staff, including James’s immediate supervisor, Lincoln (Dash Mihok! Benvolio!). But it’s impossible for James himself to admit, and that resistance — coupled with James’s hatred of the Alcoholics Anonymous program, and its use of Christian concepts of forgiveness and repentance — makes him stick out.
The attention James is drawing to himself is how the film introduces the other patients in the facility: James’s clarinet-playing roommate, Miles (Charles Parnell), a judge whose marriage fell apart after his first failed attempt at rehab; the fresh-out-of-jail John (Giovanni Ribisi), who slides into James’s shower and offers to sexually service him; the former mobster Leonard (Billy Bob Thornton), whose been-there-done-that wisdom manifests in talky friendliness; and Lilly (Odessa Young), who immediately catches James’s eye. And the facility’s rules are what shape the narrative of James’s recovery, including the no-fraternization dictate between male and female residents (which adds a clandestine edge to James and Lilly’s attraction) and the refusal to provide any sort of narcotics to residents (which means that James undergoes dental surgery without any drugs, a horrifying scene that brings to mind A Clockwork Orange). “I might be fucked up, but I’m not an addict,” James insists, and A Million Little Pieces places us beside Frey as he grapples with his own self-delusion.
To be fair, both Taylor-Johnsons do well here with varying aspects of the film. Aaron adds real fragility to a character who could have just been presented as a phenomenally stubborn, exceptionally irritating young man who has no grasp of the ways he’s ravaged his body. Instead, ATJ captures James’s growth during the film, and showcases different sides of the character through the various walls he lets down in his relationships with Miles, Leonard, John, and Lilly, as well as another counselor at the facility played by Juliette Lewis. (Truly, this cast is amazing.) And Sam Taylor-Johnson has clear empathy for those in recovery, guiding this cast through naturalistic performances that never feel showy or false.
What doesn’t work, though, is what the movie doesn’t say about James Frey. The parts the film leaves out diminish from its other successes: Frey has since admitted that the dental-work scene, one of the most emotionally gripping of this adaptation, was embellished in his memoir. The movie never touches on questions of class or money, although I wondered throughout who was footing the bill for all of this — for James seemingly being in first class as he flies to rehab, and for the rehab experience itself. The only family member we see is Bob, and the movie presents him as working-class (as all movies that place characters in Carhartt jackets do), but we don’t get a broader understanding of who James himself is. And the film walks a tricky line by wanting us to empathize with James and what he’s going through without giving him a sob story, but without a greater understanding of who James is, or why he desperately lost his virginity at 16 to a prostitute and then drunkenly cried himself to sleep, or how abusive or scary he was to the ex-girlfriend he still covets, or what caused his visceral rejection of religion and a belief in God, it’s difficult to grasp onto why this person’s story should be of particular interest to us.
Movies are inherently empathetic, and the way they introduce us to different ways of life and different cultures and different characters is essential for broadening our understanding of the world around us. That’s why I wish that A Million Little Pieces had done something more than taken Frey’s memoir at face value. What if the film had acknowledged Frey as an unreliable narrator? What if the film had broken the fourth wall and had Frey address the audience as a way to acknowledge his own self-aggrandizement? What if the film had gone full Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby and acknowledged Frey as collecting the experiences in rehab for his own memoir? The Taylor-Johnsons have made a well-meaning version of a story about addiction that hits all the emotional beats Frey’s memoir wanted readers to feel, but given the knowledge we have now, A Million Little Pieces doesn’t feel like enough.
A Million Little Pieces opened in limited release around the U.S. on Dec. 6 and is available on demand.
Image sources (in order of posting): YouTube/A Million Little Pieces, YouTube/A Million Little Pieces, YouTube/A Million Little Pieces