In 2003 James Frey published his memoir, “A Million Little Pieces”. A piece of work that initially received widespread acclaimed on release. However, went on to court controversy after the author admitted fictionalising some key aspects of his apparent life story. This controversy was only heightened by an interview on the Oprah Winfrey show. Where Oprah asked Frey to apologise to readers over a book she claimed was largely a piece of fiction.
15 years later the scuffle that ensued seems slightly over egged. After all in all honesty, how many books labelled memoirs are 100% based in fact? However, it does create a strange dynamic in translating the book to screen. One that may lead to many people forgoing the film due to the controversy surrounding the original book.
Sam Taylor-Johnsons adaptation of Frey’s novel comes in a year when addiction drama’s have sat front and centre in cinema with mixed success. From the powerful ‘Beautiful Boy’ to the limp melodrama ‘Ben is Back‘ and the frustrating ‘The Souvenir‘. Addiction and recovery have been a core staple of the 2019 film journey.
A Million Little Pieces therefore needed to offer something unique, and does provide moments where it achieves this. With strong performances dovetailing with cinematography that plays to the light and dark of the recovery process. Equally, direction is strong from Sam Taylor-Johnson, alongside a gripping central performance from her husband Aaron Taylor-Johnson. However, ultimately A Million Little Pieces failure lays within the transition from book to film. With a confused narrative that only highlights the problems inherent in the original book.
Opening with an orgy of drugs and dance that leads to Frey falling from a balcony. The damaged young man finds himself on a plane, his broken and battered body matching his internal addictive state. While his rescuer and brother (Charlie Hunnam) places Frey into a Minnesota rehab centre. Where he must face the demons of his past, and the darkness of his addiction. His fellow room mates providing support and challenge in equal measure, on his path to recovery.
A Million Little Pieces struggles to define its core message throughout the rehabilitation journey. Bouncing from the importance of self discovery and self healing, to the role of organised therapy. Not only leaving the audience slightly unclear on the core messages at play. But also adding a love affair into this confusion. Meanwhile, many of the characters surrounding Frey in rehab feel contrived and simple alongside Aaron Taylor-Johnsons powerhouse performance. Creating a disjointed narrative, where characters often feel placed in scenes to create an emotional link rather than to enhance the story.
This is a film where the strength of its narrative ultimately lays in an exploration of the individual need to face the ghosts of past choices. While the standard therapy and group aspects of the recovery process feel less clear. Equally there are mixed messages at play in the religious inflections of the therapy model. Frey eventually finding his own spiritual journey in opposition of the establishment model. The films interesting themes of religion in recovery left hanging and never fully explored.
Direction and performances save A Million Little Pieces from mediocrity. The vision of Sam Taylor-Johnson and acting prowess of her husband leading to final product that at times shines in its narrative and vision. However, despite some real emotional impact, neither director nor actor can save the film from a story that ultimately feels slightly bland and unoriginal.
Director: Sam Taylor-Johnson