A MILLION LITTLE PIECES
(US - 2019)
"A Million Little Lies," leading to the revelation that Frey, an aspiring screenwriter who had 1998's little-remembered David Schwimmer romantic comedy KISSING A FOOL to his credit, greatly embellished and outright fabricated most of the memoir. It was a major publishing industry scandal that was made worse when Oprah had Frey back on her show to grill him about misleading everyone, with Frey defending his actions by saying the truth wasn't as important as addicts and their loved ones finding therapeutic value in the story. Frey was dropped by Random House and became persona non grata in the publishing world. He spent several years licking his wounds and staying out of sight until he resurfaced writing YA sci-fi with others under the collective pseudonym "Pittacus Lore" (the 2010 film I AM NUMBER FOUR was based on a Lore novel). Frey then moved into TV as a producer on the CBS series AMERICAN GOTHIC and he has a producer and story credit on the recent critically-acclaimed film QUEEN & SLIM, all signs that he's employable once more, that the executives are letting bygones be bygones, and all is forgiven.
Which makes the appearance of the movie version of A MILLION LITTLE PIECES at this point in time all the more questionable. Frey is one of several producers (the movie rights ultimately reverted back to him after Warner Bros. cancelled plans to make it), along with screenwriters Aaron and Sam Taylor-Johnson, with Sam directing her husband Aaron as Frey. That Aaron Taylor-Johnson is already going full frontal in a flailing, drug-induced freakout, rocking out with his (admittedly impressive) cock out to the Smashing Pumpkins'"Silverfuck"during the opening credits, it's quickly apparent that this is a Taylor-Johnson vanity project and the memoir being largely fictional is of no concern to its makers. Now, Aaron is a solid actor who's done good work in some good movies (NOWHERE BOY, KICK-ASS, NOCTURNAL ANIMALS), but where exactly is the demand for an Aaron Taylor-Johnson vanity project? The film is generally faithful to Frey's book (though one character's death didn't take place until Frey's 2005 followup My Friend Leonard), but seeing it play out in this medium, with every rehab drama cliche exhaustively recycled (cue the multiple "I don't even belong in here!" clashes with exasperated but patient counselors played by Juliette Lewis and Dash Mihok), makes you retroactively question how we couldn't instantly tell Frey's story was mostly bullshit from the start. Did we really fall for his blossoming romance with prostitute and fellow addict Lilly, played here by Odessa Young as what could only be described as a Manic Pixie Dream Junkie? And what to make of Frey's roommate, an alcoholic judge, amateur clarinet player, and black man named Miles Davis (Charles Parnell), who's reduced to an archaic "Magical Negro" trope by getting it into Frey's thick skull that "We gotta look out for each other, because we're all we got!" And not to play the AV Club woke card, but did anyone inform the Taylor-Johnsons that maybe having Giovanni Ribisi play his flamboyant queen of a predatory rehab patient like the wild and crazy love child of Harvey Weinstein and Paul Lynde, offering anal sex (and the choice of top or bottom) and blowjobs to Frey as soon as he checks in was maybe a character worth revamping, or at least having Ribisi approach it in a fashion that didn't feel like it came from a 1982 Eddie Murphy standup routine?
And it's really impossible to buy the ridiculous sequence where Frey, with help from father-figure patient Leonard (Billy Bob Thornton) and orderly Hank (Ryan Hurst), pulls off a daring rescue of Lilly after she escapes from the facility and ends up at a crack den where she's sucking a guy off to get money to visit her sick grandmother. And speaking of crack, Frey is 23 as the film opens in 1993, he's been an alcoholic and a drug addict for a decade, and has been smoking crack every day for at least three years. His vital organs are so damaged from the relentless abuse that doctors warn him one drink might be enough to kill him. That said, it sort-of takes you out of the movie when this hopelessly self-destructive crackhead is played a ripped hunk with perfectly chiseled abs who looks like he spends six hours a day at the gym. Aaron Taylor-Johnson might've been able to pull it off it he wasn't so enthusiastic about getting naked all the time (there's also some nude shower wrestling with Ribisi that looks like a tribute to Ken Russell's WOMEN IN LOVE). But that speaks again to the issue of this film being nothing more than a vanity project. On one hand, it's not fair to judge the movie based on Frey's past dishonesty, nor is it fair to Thornton and Charlie Hunnam, the latter as Frey's concerned older brother, both of whom turn in excellent performances and make the most of their paper-thin characters. But on the other, the title is so tainted with scandal that even repurposing it as a work of fiction is a fool's mission. There's a reason this indie sat around for over a year waiting for a distributor only get dumped on VOD with zero publicity by Momentum Pictures: it's damaged goods that nobody wanted to touch. The Taylor-Johnsons could've made any standard-issue, 28 DAYS-esque addiction/rehab drama. Why this one, with no acknowledgement of its dubious history beyond an intro quote from Mark Twain that reads "I've lived through some terrible things in my life, some of which actually happened," as if that absolves Frey of any wrongdoing? Given what transpired after the book was published, it's impossible to tell the story of A Million Little Pieces without mentioning the fabulist issue, but the film chickens out by sidestepping it completely, essentially sticking its fingers in its ears and yelling "La-la-la, can't hear you!" A MILLION LITTLE PIECES isn't interested in telling James Frey's story. It's only interested in providing its lead with a big awards-bait Performance with a capital P, so what the Taylor-Johnsons are left with is a home movie that nobody's going to see. (R, 113 mins)
(US/China - 2019)
Other than the plethora of F-bombs, there's little in CROWN VIC to differentiate from a run-of-the-mill CBS cop show, a feeling that isn't helped by the presence of familiar TV faces like Kleintank (THE MAN IN THE HIGH CASTLE), Hopkins (QUANTICO), Krumholtz (NUMB3RS), and BLUE BLOODS' Bridget Moynahan, stretching a bit in one scene as the dead partner's junkie widow, who gave her daughter away to a pair of meth dealers. Of course, Holland doesn't agree with some of Mandel's questionable methods, prompting the veteran cop to admonish him with "You're a rookie...I can still smell your mama's pussy on you," to which Holland bellows "I'VE GOT A WIFE! I'VE GOT A DAUGHTER ON THE WAY!" Kleintank is a bit over-the-top at times, but Jane manages to create a convincingly burned-out cop who just wants to get through the night, and he's good even when he's forced to say things like "There's the person you wanted to be and there's the person you end up being...it's a hard reality to face, man," before improbably quoting George Orwell. The finale manages to generate some suspense despite the ludicrous contrivance that Souza employs to make it happen. CROWN VIC is a film that Jane fans will probably want to see, but there's little mystery why it went straight to VOD. Alec Baldwin and NYC real estate entrepreneur Claudine De Niro (Robert De Niro's former daughter-in-law) were among the dozen or so producers. (R, 110 mins)