James Frey’s “A Million Little Pieces” has been discredited as a memoir of addiction. He made too much of it up for it to be “non-fiction.” “Confessional novel?” Maybe. Got him kicked out of Oprah’s Book Club, because gosh darn it, she ALWAYS wants to believe. That doesn’t seem to have dinged his career at all.
But does a film of that tainted best seller have value on its own merits? I mean, even assuming that the most melodramatic touches are made up?
Not a lot, it turns out. Although “Kick Ass” alumnus Aaron Taylor-Johnson and his director-wife Sam Taylor-Johnson saw enough in it to turn it into a star vehicle, and stars from Billy Bob Thornton and Juliette Lewis to Giovanni Ribisi and Charlie Hunnam were happy to sign on.
What they produced is the ultimate “addict revolts against rehab” drama, a tale of a young man fighting “the cure” every single step — 12 of them, remember — along the way. Because that’s what Frey was selling and what is debated in the film’s group therapy scenes, its “inventory” confession to a Catholic priest (a non-starter). He, as a character, is anti-Alcoholics Anonymous, anti “addiction is a disease.”
“It’s a decision, NOT a disease,” he says defiantly. Perhaps he is living, walking, getting-rich proof of that. Then again, when you’re caught making stuff up, who’s to say?
“Million Little Pieces” introduces Frey (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) in the middle of that one last binge, complete with crack smoking, booze guzzling, nude dancing and falling out of a second story window.
He’s hustled onto a plane, blitzed — where he steals from the liquor cart — and into Minneapolis. That’s where the famed rehab hospital/halfway house/”facility” Waldensen (Hazelden, renamed for the movie) is.
Staggering off the plane, hallucinating a jetway oozing brown liquid from the walls, he doesn’t want to be there. Because, you know, he’s NOT an addict. “I’m not like THOSE people.”
It’s 1993, and this place is too strict for a guy who loves crack as much as James. No booze, no unprescribed medications and NO “fraternizing.” Ignore the hard-mileage young woman (Odessa Young) who comes on to him that first day.
“Wanna do some BLOW?”
“Are you deaf or retarded? I’m finding it really hard to tell.”
James doesn’t want to stay, doesn’t want to get kicked out, and kind of wants to stop vomiting. That doesn’t mean this “Christian” program is for him.
He rebuffs her, fends off a too-pushy convict (Giovanni Ribisi, born to play this guy), bristles at his clarinet playing roomie (Charles Parnell) and ignores the profane, sage sarcasm of Leonard (Billy Bob Thornton).
“Work the steps. Trust the process.”
Most everything that follows is straight out of every rehab drama ever filmed — combative group therapy, “cheating” the system, conflict with the resident “weasel” (David Dastmalchian), guilt over the family (Charlie Hunnam plays his older brother) he has wrecked with his addiction.
“God grant me the serenity…”
James rejects “the process,” resists help in sessions with his counselor (Juliette Lewis) and hurls Bibles out the window every time one is offered.
Maybe a shorter book, “Tao te Ching,” will do it for him? You know, “fortune cookie s–t?”
“If you have nothing, you have nothing to lose.”
“Addiction” is every actor’s license to take it over the top and down the drain, and Aaron Taylor-Johnson does that. It’s not a bad performance, just an over-familiar one. Thornton stands out among the rest of the cast, but nobody does colorfully crude colloqualisms like Billy Bob. Teasing a prize-fighter he knows, he stops well short of making the guy mad.
“I’ve got ribs like a f—–g blue jay!”
The Taylor-Johnsons hit just about everything here dead on the nose. That includes the music, lots of variations of “Everybody Hurts” by R.E.M. James walks into a bar, perhaps the only bar in America to put the rasping odes to alcoholism of Tom Waites on the jukebox.
But even a movie otherwise devoid of surprises finds at least one. Here, it’s a beautifully choreographed dance of co-dependency and romantic self-control, James letting himself care about that one junkie who came onto him that first day, not wanting either of them kicked out for caring.
Otherwise, “A Million Little Pieces” is little more than a million little melodrama rehab cliches.
MPAA Rating: R for drug material, language throughout, some graphic nudity and sexual content
Cast: Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Billy Bob Thornton, Odessa Young, Juliette Lewis, Charles Parnell, Giovanni Ribisi and Charlie Hunnam
Credits: Directed by Sam Talor-Johnson, script by James Frey and Aaron Taylor-Johnson. An Entertainment One release.
Running time: 1:53