How bad an addict is James Frey (Aaron Taylor-Johnson), the derelict protagonist of the smoothly conventional rehab drama “A Million Little Pieces”? The movie, directed by the British filmmaker Sam Taylor-Johnson (“Fifty Shades of Grey”), opens with a here’s-what-hitting-bottom-looks-like fanfare in which James smokes crack and hurls himself around a party with psycho abandon, his naked body writhing in slow motion (he then falls from the second story). Slumped on a plane, his face a mass of welts and gashes, he asks the flight attendant for some whisky, which she refuses to give him, but he grabs one anyway, pouring the bottle down his throat as if he’s trying to put out a fire (or start one).
In Minneapolis, James’ brother, Bob (Charlie Hunnam), checks him into the Waldensen rehab center, where he is scheduled to stay for six weeks. But it’s as if he’s still on a bender; the drug insanity is as there as the scabs on his face. At Waldensen, he trashes all the furniture in his room. When a noodgy fellow addict tells him he’s not doing a good enough job of cleaning the bathroom, he terrorizes him. And don’t get James started on the 12-step program, which he loathes because of the God connection. At a lecture, just hearing about Step 5 is enough to cause him to stalk out of the room and try to rip a sapling out by its roots.
It’s abundantly clear, watching “A Million Little Pieces,” just how bad an addict James Frey is. Very bad. But you also wonder: Beneath the angry frazzled nerve endings and drug-fueled compulsiveness, who is James Frey? The film’s 28-year-old star, Aaron Taylor-Johnson (who is married to the director), is an intensely gifted actor whose piercing eyes and lithe shaggy handsomeness suggest James Franco with a touch of Tony Goldwyn. He makes Frey a heartland hothead, prone to outbreaks of violence, who takes in every moment through the warped lens of his addictions. James, we learn, is wanted in three states, and his crack habit was so consuming that he’s done major damage to all his vital organs. (The doctor says it’s a miracle he’s even walking.)
But what’s his identity beneath the drugs? In “A Million Little Pieces,” we never quite get the answer. We learn a few stray facts about James (he went to college, he had a serious girlfriend he lost through his scurrilous behavior), but he has no real dimension or idiosyncrasy as a character. Aaron Taylor-Johnson gives him a charged, vulnerable, fleshed-out presence, but he rarely gets very much of interest to say.
We know, of course, that the real James Frey became famous when he published his acclaimed memoir, “A Million Little Pieces,” in 2003 (a decade after he began his recovery), only to reveal that he’d made a few scattered sections of the book up. At the time, you might have thought that the kerfuffle that resulted from this admission — the media handwringing, the ritual public grilling by Oprah Winfrey — revolved around a matter of national security.
But now, 15 years later, when the leader of the free world tells more lies on an average day than James Frey did in his entire book, it’s easier to see that Frey’s embellishments were minor sins, and that there was something over-the-top about how he got turned into a literary whipping boy. Anyone who knows anything about memoirs realizes that a lot of them have concocted elements; many novels, meanwhile, are just glorified autobiography. Now that the furor over “A Million Little Pieces” is long past, and a major movie has been made of it, the only issue that matters is: How does it play? Does it strike a note of electric dramatic truth?
I would say: Truth, yes. Electric, no. Even those of us who have never been to rehab, or a 12-step meeting, may still feel as if we have based on the movies we’ve seen. It’s all part of a crucial process that saves lives, but it has also become a genre, as full of ritualized clichés as the Western or the courtroom drama or the heist thriller. We know the drill: the way the patient always acts incredibly unreasonable during the first few days; the way he gradually submits to the program, settling in with a grudging surliness that softens over time; the tough-love counselors, who are recovering addicts themselves and reveal, in key scenes, their own stories; the fights and the relapses; the hugs and confessions; the submission to a power that’s higher than drug hunger or resentful narcissism.
“A Million Little Pieces” hits most of those notes, and Sam Taylor-Johnson directs it with a fluid proficiency, yet what’s missing from the movie is James Frey’s voice. When he wrote “A Million Little Pieces,” he was no longer a 23-year-old addicted criminal screwup, but the story he told was filtered through his heightened thoughts and words. The movie never figures out a way to get James Frey’s sensibility in there. The James we see is nothing but an addict, and though there’s a truth to that (he’s been an alcoholic for 10 years, and a crackhead for three), where is his personality apart from the drugs? “A Million Little Pieces” doesn’t show us, because it doesn’t seem interested. The script, which is credited to the two Taylor-Johnsons, seems to have been cooked up as a virtuoso acting exercise. It’s full of showpiece scenes of nihilistic acting out, but it’s not full of scenes that reveal human character in a meaningful way.
In rehab, James’s roommate is a stuffy middle-aged judge (Charles Parnell) who torments him with his squawking clarinet. Giovanni Ribisi, looking like a skeeved-out Billie Joe Armstrong, plays a broken-down flake whose addictive behavior keeps landing him in prison (and who, weirdly, persists in trying to set James up with his daughter). And Billy Bob Thornton, wearing sunglasses that Elvis Presley would have rejected for being too ostentatious, does a full-on character turn as a patient whose backstory doesn’t totally add up — he was adopted by a ruthless gangster! who was also a regretful addict! — yet Thornton leaves you grateful for his showbiz prowess.
That said, his scenes play as a sop to the audience. So does the bond that develops between James and Lilly (Odessa Young), the recovering cokehead and former prostitute who falls for him. They rendezvous in secret, which is against rehab rules, but their relationship lends the movie an arc of momentum, and it allows James, at one point, to become a knight of salvation. Yet there’s also something about it, frankly, that’s a little Hollywood. It’s not as if everyone in rehab gets the benefit, like James, of being adored.
“A Million Little Pieces” will inevitably be compared to the two other dramas of addiction at this year’s Toronto Film Festival, “Beautiful Boy” and “Ben Is Back.” I’ve only seen the former, and it’s less convulsive on the surface than “A Million Little Pieces,” but “Beautiful Boy” confronts the conundrum of recovery — that for so many, relapse is lurking just around the corner. In “A Million Little Pieces,” James Frey starts off as a man down an abyss, but the film is about how he climbs up and out and gets better, without much in the way of setback. Technically, that’s not a drama — it’s a victory dance in slow motion.