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‘A Million Little Pieces’ works on film, and that’s the honest truth

Aaron Taylor-Johnson does harrowing work as author James Frey in the throes of addiction and rehab.

Aaron Taylor-Johnson plays James Frey at his addictive low point in “A Million Little Pieces.”
Momentum Pictures

“I’ve lived through some terrible things in my life, some of which actually happened.” – Mark Twain, quoted in “A Million Little Pieces.”

You had to feel for James Frey.

In January 2006, the School of the Art Institute grad turned best-selling author took arguably the most brutal verbal beatdown in the history of “The Oprah Winfrey Show.”

Granted, Frey brought it upon himself, when it was revealed his mega-successful addiction memoir “A Million Little Pieces” contained major exaggerations and fabrications.

Oprah, who initially had championed the book, was not amused. She called Frey on the carpet in front of a studio audience and millions of viewers.

It seemed excessive. It was painful to watch.

A few years later, Oprah said she owed Frey an apology. By then, Frey had bounced back in a big way, with a seven-figure deal to write novels for Harper Collins. Since then, his career has continued to thrive, most recently with a “Story By” credit for the acclaimed theatrical release “Queen & Slim.”

Now, some 16 years after the publication of “A Million Little Pieces,” a film adaptation from director/co-writer Sam Taylor-Johnson (“Fifty Shades of Grey,” no relation) is getting an understated release, and it’s reasonable to assume a good percentage of viewers will have little or no knowledge of the controversial story behind the source material.

Not that it should matter. As a stand-alone work of cinema fiction, “A Million Little Pieces” is an effective blunt instrument of a film — a rough-edged, unvarnished, painfully accurate portrayal of addiction and rehabilitation.

Aaron Taylor-Johnson (husband of the director) delivers a stunning performance as the self-destructive, hardcore addict James. There’s nothing Hollywood or glamorous about this work; Taylor-Johnson looks like a walking ghost as James wakes up on a plane bound for Minneapolis (he doesn’t even know how he got there), where he is met by his brother Bob (Charlie Hunnam), who takes James straight to a rehab facility.

Hunnam delivers steady, powerful work in a small but pivotal role. We all know someone like Bob (perhaps we’re someone like Bob), who is worn out by James’ behavior but refuses to give up on him, because he’s family.

James is hardly all-in with a 12-step recovery plan; like many an addict, he thinks he’s smarter than everyone else in the room and he’ll figure out his own path to recovery. While in rehab, he meets archetypes such as a stern but caring supervisor (Dash Mihok, best known as Bunchy on “Ray Donovan”), a possible love interest in the badly broken Lilly (Odessa Young) and a father figure in a man named Leonard (Billy Bob Thornton). The fine supporting cast, most notably Thornton, rescue these roles from overly cliched status.

Sam Taylor-Johnson infuses “A Million Little Pieces” with a frenetic, jarring style capturing the fragmented, jagged, blurred-realities world of the addict, and Aaron Taylor-Johnson delivers a raw, bruising, commanding performance as a man who is either going to find a measure of peace in the day-to-day world of recovery or is going to wind up dead. There’s no third option.

But as James Frey has demonstrated, there IS such a thing as a second act in an American life.