A Million Little Pieces

2020-05-07 10:48
 
Aaron Taylor-Johnson in 'A Million Little Pieces.'

WHAT IT'S ABOUT IT:

When a young man hits rock bottom after years of abusing himself with drugs, his brother decides enough is enough and books him into rehab. Is he far gone enough to want to receive help or is he too far gone for even that? Based on the controversial book by James Frey.

WHAT WE THOUGHT:

I don't know what it is about director/co-writer Sam Taylor-Johnson that makes her want to direct film adaptations of highly controversial books, but after doing about the best she could to make a film out of Fifty Shades of Grey, she's at it again with James Frey's even more contentious A Million Little Pieces. Honestly, though she made the only halfway watchable instalment in the Fifty Shades series, she actually struggles more here to get out of the shadow of the source material.

For those who don't know, James Frey's inside look at his own stay in rehab was a major sensation when it was first released, selling a ludicrous amount of copies and getting Oprah Winfrey's seal of approval when she included it in her much-vaunted book club. A few months later, however, word got out that Frey had actually made up large portions of what was supposed to be an entirely non-fictional memoir. In spite of Oprah eviscerating Frey on live television and withdrawing his book from her recommendations list, he largely came out unscathed as he remains a successful author and his falsified autobiography continues to sell.

And, as it turns out, he even managed to get a film made out of it.

Originally released to festivals in 2018 (which, as well know, was approximately 768 years ago now) to mediocre reviews and scant word-of-mouth press, it finally arrived here in South Africa on DSTV Box Office the same week it was originally supposed to be released in select cinemas. It has taken so much of its sweet time to arrive here that I actually saw it months ago and was sure that I had actually reviewed it already, even more, certain that it had come and gone from cinemas very quickly. Apparently, every word of that sentence is wrong.

Unfortunately, my amnesia on the matter is a pretty good indication of the quality of the film. It's certainly nowhere near bad enough to lodge its place in anyone's memory, but those mediocre reviews were right on target: this is an exceptionally unexceptional film where the only remotely interesting thing about it had to do with the book and the fact that the film couldn't even be bothered to touch of any of that stuff. The fact that I knew about the controversy around Frey going in, though, did no favours to my view of the film.

Films about people in rehab or psychiatric facilities have a fairly long tradition in film but only a select few – One Flew Over The Cuckoos Nest, in particular – have really made much of an impact. Despite their serious, genuinely important subject matter, most of them feel, at best, formulaic and, at worst, inauthentic. The nature of the source material means that it's a bit of both, albeit not entirely without some ring of authenticity to it.

For all of the visual flourishes that Taylor-Johnson brings to the screen and however committed her husband, Aaron Taylor-Johnson (with whom she also wrote the screenplay), is to the material, A Million Little Pieces is just an incredibly rote retelling of a story we've seen thousands of times before. It's grizzlier than some and significantly less so than others but, though it does occasionally hit on a truthful, convincing note, it never amounts to much more than being just another rehab flick. 

In particular, though the actual things he goes through seem largely authentic (if, perhaps, harsher than other rehab facilities), the actual characters in the film seem entirely made up. And, while events ring true when taken isolation, they come across as massively contrived when viewed as a whole.

There isn't really a ton of depth to the James Frey character beyond his being an addict, but he at least feels like an actual person. Most of the rest of the cast – regardless of how good the likes of Billy Bob Thornton, Juliet Lewis, Odessa Young, and Giovanni Ribisi may be in their roles – feel like stock stereotypes taken from other rehab films. The worst of these by far is Billy Bob Thornton's character who may or may not be based on a real person but comes across as an artificial construct, nonetheless. Thornton is great, as he tends to be, and I actually really enjoyed his character, but because he feels made up and because they way his story plays out feels far too pat, he just makes it all that much harder to believe in the events being depicted on screen.

And this is the reason why I keep using the word "feel". No doubt much of this is totally true to life but authenticity is really the key here and because I constantly felt like I was watching a loose recreation of the real thing rather than the thing itself, that authenticity was undercut. Ultimately, it doesn't really matter that it is, at times, quite compelling, that it's not uninteresting and that it seems to be made with good intentions and at least some fidelity to the truth – those notes of falsehood and fiction make the film a frustrating and unsatisfying experience.

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