thu 19/09/2019

A Million Little Pieces review - addict's anaemic redemption | reviews, news & interviews

A Million Little Pieces review - addict's anaemic redemption

A Million Little Pieces review - addict's anaemic redemption

Sam Taylor-Johnson honourably emphasises rehab success, at cinematic power's expense

James Frey (Aaron Taylor-Johnson)

The high, crackhead days of James Frey (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) are over in five adrenalized minutes, as he dances naked to the Smashing Pumpkins, then tumbles insensibly backwards from a ledge. Sam Taylor-Johnson’s adaptation of Frey’s controversially fictionalised addiction memoir then focuses unsensationally on his recovery.

“I’ve never seen this degree of degradation in someone so young,” a doctor intones. James’s battered face is further, outward testament that any backsliding will be fatal. Taylor-Johnson emphasises redemption over that degradation, in the sunlit corridors of a rehab facility which only fleetingly nods to One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest’s institutional cruelty. James finds enemies here. Mostly, though, he fights his mulish, terrified refusal to change. “Why would anyone in their right mind choose all that destruction?” Juliette Lewis’s doctor coaxes him to ask. Armed with a stray copy of the Tao Te Ching and sternly challenged by this benign rehab community, his retorts lose their force. “We’re all we’ve got,” he’s told. 

James Frey (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) in A Million Little PiecesIt’s a decade since Taylor-Johnson made her directorial debut with Nowhere Boy, showing John Lennon’s teenage relationship with his mother as a tragedy equal to his assassination, with precisely calibrated but overwhelming emotion. Aaron Johnson was her young star then, her husband and co-writer now. But the E.L. James-compromised, commercially phenomenal Fifty Shades of Grey is the remaining sum of her cinema career. The institutional sexism which hobbles female auteurs seems the obvious cause. A Million Little Pieces, though, leaves the scale of her talent uncertain. It’s diligently convincing, and admirable in its optimistic slant on recovery. There is, though, little happening outside this heartfelt, soft-focus propaganda.

There are directorial flourishes, as when Frey hallucinates slipping and sliding through excrement-coated corridors, and he and illicit female friend Lily (Odessa Young) fantasise fixing up to the Velvet Underground’s “Candy Says”. With regular David Fincher cinematographer Jordan Cronenweth, Taylor-Johnson filters this antiseptic world through a redemptive, richly coloured glow, suggestive of Seventies film. It also has an anaesthetising, suburban evenness, as if we’re participating in the cure.

Leonard (Billy Bob Thornton) in A Million Little PiecesActorly flourishes are more effective, especially Billy Bob Thornton’s mesmerically Zen, dapper gangster mentor (pictured above). Odessa Young’s seductive, desperate warmth and Giovanni Ribisi’s equally hungry, funny, finally tragic lunges at connection, sexual or otherwise, add to the finely balanced, understated equation. Only a late descent back towards addiction sinks into predictably jangled shadows and nightmare hues. Here Frey crushes a vial under his heel like a snake, defeating backsliding’s satanic temptation. Novelistic turns abound by now, his ambiguous “memoir” losing narrative conviction. 

Mostly, though, A Million Little Pieces is as sober as Frey reluctantly tries to be. Potentially vivid, grisly incidents such as rebreaking his nose and anaesthetic-free dentistry are typically softened, their point unclear. This close character study in an extreme social setting shuns exploitation, but lacks compensatory power of its own.

This antiseptic world has an anaesthetising, suburban evenness, as if we’re participating in the cure

rating

Editor Rating: 
3
Average: 3 (1 vote)

Share this article

Add comment

Subscribe to theartsdesk.com

Thank you for continuing to read our work on theartsdesk.com. For unlimited access to every article in its entirety, including our archive of more than 10,000 pieces, we're asking for £3.95 per month or £30 per year. We feel it's a very good deal, and hope you do too.

To take an annual subscription now simply click here.

And if you're looking for that extra gift for a friend or family member, why not treat them to a theartsdesk.com gift subscription?

newsletter

Get a weekly digest of our critical highlights in your inbox each Thursday!

Simply enter your email address in the box below

View previous newsletters

Advertising feature

★★★★★

A compulsive, involving, emotionally stirring evening – theatre’s answer to a page-turner.
The Observer, Kate Kellaway

 

Direct from a sold-out season at Kiln Theatre the five star, hit play, The Son, is now playing at the Duke of York’s Theatre for a strictly limited season.

 

★★★★★

This final part of Florian Zeller’s trilogy is the most powerful of all.
The Times, Ann Treneman

 

Written by the internationally acclaimed Florian Zeller (The Father, The Mother), lauded by The Guardian as ‘the most exciting playwright of our time’, The Son is directed by the award-winning Michael Longhurst.

 

Book by 30 September and get tickets from £15*
with no booking fee.