A Million Little Pieces Review
Sam Taylor-Johnson and Aaron Taylor Johnson come together for their second feature film collaboration following the release of Nowhere Boy, Sam Taylor-Johnson’s directorial feature film debut released in 2009. The two have now combined forces to tell the story of James Frey, a 23-year-old addict who reluctantly works his way through a 12-step programme to combat his addiction after his older brother checks him into a rehabilitation centre.
A Million Little Pieces follows Frey - based on the author’s controversial 2003 memoir which saw fact and fiction blur dramatically - as he navigates his way through his journey at the rehab centre and explores his fight to combat his addiction. James’ fellow patients help to shape his experience and the relationships he forms during his time at the clinic have a greater impact on his life than he initially anticipated.
We first meet an intoxicated James (Taylor-Johnson) as he falls from a balcony following a drug binge. Waking up on a plane, broken and bloodied with no recollection of how he got there or where he is going, James is denied his request for an alcoholic drink and ends up guzzling a stolen bottle of whiskey. Upon his arrival at the rehab clinic, James is a broken man.
During the first few days at the centre, he struggles with withdrawal symptoms and is adamant that he doesn’t want to participate in the clinic’s 12 step programme. Along the way, James meets a number of other patients who attempt to befriend him, including Leonard (Billy Bob Thornton), a rumoured mobster who encourages James to get clean, Miles (Charles Parnell), James’ clarinet playing roommate, John (Giovanni Ribisi) - an ex-con who advertises himself to James as a ‘sexual ninja’ - and Lily (Odessa Young), a fellow addict and former prostitute who builds a close relationship with James.
From the get-go, Aaron Taylor-Johnson’s displays his versatility as an actor and gives an incredibly strong performance as Frey. His portrayal as a struggling drug addict who has given up on life is convincing and despite his negative character traits, he manages to persuade the audience to sympathise with him and his current situation. Although going to rehab is something that most of us will hope to never have to go through, Taylor-Johnson successfully communicates the traumatic elements of the experience through an impressive physical and emotional performance.
The film also includes pleasing performances from the rest of the cast. Billy Bob Thornton and Giovanni Ribisi are effective in their use of comic relief which is key for a film tackling such a tough subject matter. Both actors succeed in portraying complex characters who have troubled pasts yet deliver some of the funniest lines in the movie.
Impressive performances aside, A Million Little Pieces uses some powerful imagery and its use of sound aids the audience’s understanding of the intensity of James’ struggles in rehab. As he dips in out of consciousness or is experiencing something particularly traumatic, the level of music rises and falls to accompany what viewers see on screen. In one particular scene, James undergoes a series of dental treatments without anaesthetic, and the sound of the drill is so loud, you can almost feel James’ discomfort.
So, considering the strong cast and effective use of imagery and pleasing cinematography, is there anything wrong with the film? Unfortunately, yes. Despite the convincing central performance, the audience are given very little information about Frey’s character, other than the fact he is a drug addict and was rebellious as a child. This leaves the character with very little depth and since his arc is rather clichéd, viewers may be left wondering what separates this film from others that explore similar issues.
James’ relationship with fellow patient Lily felt confused in parts. They go from having fleeting conversations with one another to risking their places at the clinic to spend time together. Their relationship feels rushed and the chemistry between the two actors - who both give credible performances - wasn’t quite there.
It is also difficult to ignore the history of the original source material. While originally receiving high praise upon its release in 2003, and even topping the New York Times Best Seller list for 15 weeks, it was heavily criticised once it was discovered (thanks to that Oprah interview) that several key points within the book were fabricated. The book has since been viewed with an element of controversy and is now described as ‘semi-fictional’.
Taylor-Johnson’s portrayal of drug addict James Frey is definitely memorable. However, pleasing performances from Taylor-Johnson and his cast, and effective cinematography are not enough to carry the film and, as a whole, it lacks meaning and depth. A Million Little Pieces brings very little new to the table.