Adapting James Frey’s infamously fictionalized memoir, “A Million Little Pieces,” the director Sam Taylor-Johnson niftily elides the book’s truthiness problem with an introductory quotation from Mark Twain.
“I’ve lived through some terrible things in my life, some of which actually happened,” it reads, before we see a physically wrecked James (vividly played by Aaron Taylor-Johnson, the director’s husband and screenwriting partner) slouched on a plane and headed to a Minnesota clinic. A substance abuser since childhood (crack and alcohol are his favorites), James is now 23 and one drink away from almost certain death.
So begins yet another ruin-and-rehab tale, one that initially tantalizes then flatly disappoints. In an intensely physical performance, Taylor-Johnson leaps and writhes and trembles through treatment as James endures a root canal, a broken-nose reset and a clarinet-playing roommate — all without anesthesia. Yet there’s no hint of what drove him to destroy himself and not a single reason for the audience to invest in his recovery.
Looking elsewhere for entertainment, we find an affable Billy Bob Thornton as a laid-back rehab regular, and a very touching Odessa Young as Lilly, James’s fragile love interest. Jeff Cronenweth’s cinematography is often eloquent and more creative than the script, especially in the film’s euphoric opening as James dances wildly, naked and out of his mind. Later, as he and Lilly slowly circle each other in an intimate, forbidden conversation, the camera hovers so protectively we wonder if it knows something that we don’t.
Moments like these brighten a movie that’s otherwise dull and sadly unmemorable. Mostly, it just reminded me how much I enjoy Billy Bob Thornton.
A Million Little Pieces
Rated R for unmediated dentistry and unruly penises. Running time: 1 hour 53 minutes.