‘A Million Little Pieces’ Turns James Frey’s Once Controversial Book Into Rehashed Rehab 

Those who recall the heyday of Oprah’s Book Club may remember the name James Frey. A recovering addict, Frey had turned his rehab experience into a book selected by the TV guru which went on to become an instant bestseller. Alas it later turned out that Frey had actually invented quite a bit of his memoir, prompting his publisher to offer refunds and Oprah to do a mea culpa on her show. But none of this has prevented “A Million Little Pieces” from becoming a movie. With the controversy over the book nearly two decades behind us, the question is if this could at least be a decent drama on screen. It has potential, but leaves crucial details behind.

Aaron Taylor-Johnson plays Frey, who in his early 20s is already ravaged by getting hooked on everything from alcohol to crack. Eventually he checks into rehab with the help of his brother Bob (Charlie Hunnam). As with most addicts, especially movie ones, Frey denies he has a problem, hates the rules imposed by the facility and scoffs at the religious nature of AA. He meets fellow passengers like the older and wiser Leonard (Billy Bob Thornton) and despairing John (Giovanni Ribisi). The instructors like Joanne (Juliette Lewis) try to guide Frey into the recovery process, but he has a rage in him that first needs to be acknowledged. A different kind of hope might be found in another patient, Lilly (Odessa Young), who reaches out to Frey even though men and women are strictly segregated. For Frey recovery proves to be a hard road both emotionally and physically.

A possible guiding rule for adapting a book like “A Million Little Pieces” is that what may be a lie on paper could still work in a movie, which is composed of actors and sets anyway. The ads spare us the “based on a true story” tagline. Directing is Sam Taylor-Johnson, who happens to be married to Aaron Taylor-Johnson. The two became involved while making the 2009 John Lennon biopic “Nowhere Boy.” They both also share writing credit on “A Million Little Pieces.” Taylor-Johnson’s previous adaptation of a bestseller was 2015’s “Fifty Shades of Grey,” which frankly had more proper exposition than this movie. What’s generally missing is an actual portrait of Frey. Taylor-Johnson opens with the perquisite shots of our lead actor binge-drinking, snorting and dancing half-naked to 90’s alternative rock. He wakes up on a plane, begging for booze and is informed a mysterious doctor put him onboard. The rest of the film consists essentially of snapshots revolving around rehab life. There goes Frey vomiting into a toilet, getting the shivers and discovering his roommate is a former judge prone to practicing his clarinet. 

Not to downplay the experience of battling addiction, which must certainly be harrowing, but “A Million Little Pieces” feels bland because it goes over the typical scenes of bodily decay and temper tantrums without giving the narrative a truly human backstory. Who exactly was Frey? What experiences have shaped this man even while in the grip of narcotics? The book itself boasts a kind of macho prose but it’s clear Frey wanted to sell himself as a writer who had to overcome his demons. In the film Frey is no one, just a poster child for movie rehab. His brother Bob has more backstory when he chastises Frey for never being there for him and acting selfish, to the point of not realizing his brother has been divorced for two years. Billy Bob Thornton’s relaxed Leonard reveals even more of himself when he explains his origins as the adopted child of street gangsters. But Frey is meant to just smoke endless packs of cigarettes and sit like a sphinx in the facility’s rooms. His romance with Lilly has little depth to it. It’s just a requirement in any movie about a hero inside a confined zone. Yet even Lilly has more of a heartbreaking, memorable backstory than Frey. 

What hasn’t been taken out of the movie are the more visceral, although invented, parts of the book, such as Frey’s claim that he underwent several root canals without Novocain (the idea being a recovering addict must be kept away from any drugs). Cinematographer Jeff Cronenweth, who has shot several David Fincher films including “Gone Girl” and “Fight Club,” pulls off a few memorable sequences where Frey has intense hallucinations of bleeding walls or pulling an AA manual from an overflowing toilet. Even the book’s once famous cover is evoked with a shot of Frey’s hand under a shower of multi-colored pills. 

“A Million Little Pieces” still boasts a strong cast and they deliver competent work within a film that offers nothing beyond what it merely shows. Aaron Taylor-Johnson never truly goes to the depths of addiction’s horror like Leonardo DiCaprio in “The Basketball Diaries” for example, and none of the film compares to something like Darren Aronofsky’s “Requiem for a Dream.” Its best moment may be when Frey, confronted by a pint of whiskey, faces his terror head on at a bar and must choose to either continue with sobriety or fail once again. 

The great irony of “A Million Little Pieces” as a movie is that Frey’s book was a riveting work of invention. He misled readers by selling it as a memoir, but overall he told a good yarn, which is why Oprah paid attention. It should’ve been a better movie, but it decided to avoid a million other choices that could have made it so.

A Million Little Pieces” opens Dec. 6 in select theaters.