PLOT: A young drug addict (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) wakes up in an airplane en route to a rehab clinic for one last stab at sobriety, with doctors warning him any further drug or alcohol use will lead to his death.
REVIEW: A big-screen adaptation of the James Frey “memoir” of the same name was always bound to be controversial. If you are a younger reader and missed out on the scandal back when it happened, Frey’s memoir was pegged as highly dubious at the time of its release, and indeed turned out to be mostly fictionalized. It all came to a head in an appearance on “Oprah” where the author and his publisher were eviscerated on air. Flash forward a decade later and Frey’s memoir hits the big screen in a faithful adaptation that sticks with a lot of the author’s most dubious claims, making for a film that would be controversial were it not getting such a low key release.
Full disclosure, I read both “A Million Little Pieces” and its sequel “My Friend Leonard” after it all turned out to be untrue and still loved both books, so I went into this relatively free of prejudice. However, I’m sorry to say that despite how faithful an adaptation it is, something’s been lost in its transition to the big screen, despite stylish direction by Sam Taylor-Johnson.
I think the problem here ultimately boils down to Aaron Taylor-Johnson in the lead. While a good actor, he’s simply not convincing on a physical level as Frey, who we’re told over and over is near death, even though he’s constantly stripping naked to show off his chiseled eight-pack (and another rather well-endowed asset). Alcoholic/drug addicts on the verge of death don’t look like this, and it’s a false concession to either vanity or commercialism that dooms the film to pale in comparison to not only classics of the genre like CLEAN & SOBER but also more recent entries like BEAUTIFUL BOY and BEN IS BACK. This had the misfortune of premiering alongside those at TIFF 2018.
Frey is indeed a somewhat loathsome, self-involved character, but then again so are most alcoholics, so this part is conveyed well, but Johnson, while committed lacks a certain something in the role that’s hard to pin down. He’s too classic a leading man to quite pull it off (and to be sure – he can be brilliant in the right role). The supporting cast is stronger, with Billy Bob Thornton ideally cast as the most memorable character from the book, Leonard, a mobbed-up gambler who looks at Frey like a surrogate son. In the book, everyone keeps saying he looks like Gene Hackman, and Thornton captures his rough and tough charisma, so much so that you can’t help but wish he was in the movie more. The same goes for Charlie Hunnam, who quietly steals scenes as Frey’s nice-guy brother. He’s rarely been so low-key, and he grounds the film was the one guy who’s not struggling with addiction-related issues and his scenes with Taylor-Johnson are the best in the film. Odessa Young also has the right wounded intensity as Lily, although Giovanni Ribisi seems over the top as a sexually predatory patient, only to get a last-minute reversal that feels unearned.
Still, one can’t help but feel the film is a little too faithful at times, with the most controversial moment from the books, where Frey has to undergo dental surgery without anesthetic making its way into the film – an episode that’s hard to swallow. Yet, it was a memorable scene in the book so I guess it had to be in the film, but it’s not easy to believe. The film fares best when doing its own thing, with a last-minute confession made to Leonard rather than a random priest being a smart change, while the score by Atticus Ross, Leopold Ross, and Claudia Sarne is effectively low-key. Sam Taylor-Johnson also shows some real flair behind the camera, with the film’s signature shot being the last one, where a few characters are shot through the lens of a full glass of whiskey. It’s a cool looking shot and one that feels authentic rather than gimmicky.
What was refreshing about the book was how it tried to tell a brutal rehab story, but in the years since it’s become a mini-genre unto itself, robbing the story of much of its power despite the clear talent here that’s both behind and in front of the camera. If you’re a fan of the book it’s worth seeing, but the memoir is, unfortunately, a product of its time that’s hard to adapt and thus comes up a little short, especially with a lead that doesn’t come off as an easy fit in the part.