Remember Tom Ford’s Nocturnal Animals? It had a glittering cast – Amy Adams, Jake Gyllenhaal – but the performance that everybody talked about belonged to Aaron Taylor-Johnson, almost unrecognisable as the shaggy-haired villain of the piece. Up until then, he’d almost been hampered by his looks in parts that didn’t demand a great deal of him as an actor. It was a role that marked a sea-change and one that he drew on for his scary eyed psycho Douglas in last year’s The Outlaw King.
A Million Little Pieces demands even more of him and this time it’s clearly a personal project for him and wife Sam. Together they wrote the script, she directed and he’s in the lead. It’s also based on a book with something of a chequered history. In it, James Frey, played by Johnson in the film, charted his descent into drugs hell and his eventual rehabilitation and it was a huge success for a non-fiction title. Then it emerged that, although it was presented as a memoir, not all of it was actual fact, something the author had to admit several years after publication. Alex Haley’s Roots, anybody?
It does mean there’s a question mark in your mind as the film starts, ironically with Mark Twain’s, “I’ve lived through some terrible things in my life. Some of which actually happened.” And it never really goes away. Not only is there a total absence of anything pointing towards Frey being a writer, there’s precious little about his background, so it’s difficult to understand why he became addicted to alcohol and drugs. And that creates a distance between the audience and the character. We’re plunged immediately into his world of excess, with him dancing around bollock naked – literally – on a complete high. It all ends badly, with a terrible accident and him waking up on board a plane home. Older brother Bob (Charlie Hunnam) meets him and immediately checks him into a rehab clinic – one with a high success rate – before he takes things too far.
After which follow the inevitable scenes of the effects of cold turkey and his rule-breaking resistance to the programme. There’s one particular scene that, if you’re averse to going to the dentist, will make you want to avert your eyes at the very least. Not that director Taylor-Johnson lingers excessively on the pain – the dentist certainly isn’t the one from Marathon Man – because your imagination does the job very effectively, thank you. To give her credit, there are also some striking images in the film, combining subtlety and sensitivity, but they’re too few and far between in a story that, while harrowing at times, is disappointingly by the numbers.
That’s not to decry anybody who’s gone through a similar experience but there is a feeling that we’ve seen this all before and that it’s been done better. Aaron Taylor-Johnson gives a committed performance but he can’t make up for that lack of knowledge about his character, even though he co-wrote the script. He hasn’t helped himself on that front and, in truth, you find yourself longing for an actor with more dramatic heft to take the role by the scruff of the neck and give it the shake-up it needs. The film would benefit from a similar roughing-up as well, despite the presence of Billy Bob Thornton who, at least, manages to give it some emotional weight when he’s on screen. But A Million Little Pieces is very much a one note film and never manages to lift itself out of that. Combined with the gaps in your knowledge about the main protagonist, it ultimately makes for a frustrating watch.
Freda Cooper | [rating=2]
Biography, Drama | Cert:15 | UK, 30 August (2019) | Entertainment One | Dir. Sam Taylor-Johnson | Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Charlie Hunnam, Billy Bob Thornton, Juliette Lewis, David Dastmalchian.