Normally, when you hear that three Oscar winners are starring in a movie, it would garner at least a heightened interest in the film, at most a genuine excitement for what that kind of talent can produce. Add to it a director/writer whose filmography includes a Best Picture nominee and a Best Actress winner and it most certainly would rank among the most anticipated films of any awards season.
Unfortunately, The Little Things, from writer/director John Lee Hancock (The Blind Side) and starring Oscar winners Denzel Washington, Rami Malek and Jared Leto, not only doesn’t live up to the talent associated with it, but crushes any semblance of legitimate awards consideration by being one of the most hackneyed, off-course and morosely derivative exercises in storytelling in recent memory, with disappointing performances to match.
It doesn’t take long to establish the genre and mood The Little Things is going for, as we see a pretty, young woman driving alone down a dark, deserted highway, being suspiciously pursued. It’s a total Zodiac vibe as the unseen stranger forces her off the road, and is preparing to murder her, but she is fortunately saved by a passing truck. Cut to young, cocky, hot-shot police detective (is there any other kind), Jim Baxter, played by Malek, giving a press conference about the case, promising to catch the pursuer, who they believe is a serial killer. Listening in is grizzled and apparently miserable small-town Sherriff’s deputy Joe Deacon, in town to pick up some evidence for a case he’s working on. Baxter’s case intrigues Deacon, and he decides to take some vacation time to stay in town and work on it. But, of course, there are complications, as Baxter is extremely territorial, and Deacon apparently used to work in L.A. and has a dark past with the department, something everyone he meets finds some random way to allude to. Yeah, we get it, he’s tortured about a past case that he’s never been able to let go of and he thinks if he can just close this one, it will expunge his demons.
The set-up should sound familiar because it’s the basic plot of nearly every single police detective /serial killer movie or TV show ever made. Throw in a mis-matched pair of investigators who don’t like each other, a creepy suspect who likes to taunt the police, and pretty young female victims and you’ve hit the Crime Drama Bingo. There is DNA of every cop movie and TV show sprinkled somewhere here, including Zodiac, Se7en, L.A. Confidential and True Detective, but The Little Things isn’t able to inject anything new into the equation, so it ends up being a contrived mash-up of other movies, hoping the audience won’t notice or care about its lack of originality.
But still, there was a chance to at least take the audience on a worthwhile journey if it had just given them enough of a captivating story and characters they’d want to spend time with. Unfortunately though, these characters are one-dimensional and devoid of personality, and, once the serial killer suspect, played by Jared Leto, arrives on the scene, the film veers off into a ridiculous cat-and-mouse game, filled with pointless diversions, inane dialogue (“I will follow him!”) and culminating in a sequence so illogical and unbelievable, you don’t know whether to laugh or roll your eyes. At the very least, it makes you want the previous two hours back.
But what really lets the film down are the performances, which are, across the board, far below these actors’ potential. Washington simply seems tired playing a character that it feels like he’s played a hundred times before. The foundation of the film is supposed to be the unlikely bond between Joe and Jim, the cynical veteran cop and the young, idealistic up-and-comer, but their chemistry never gels, as both Washington and Malek are in their own worlds, acting in their own bubbles. While Washington is sleepwalking, Malek is going to the other extreme, overplaying at every turn, delivering lines with overly exaggerated emphasis or ominously mumbling. It’s impossible to not imagine the same performance in the upcoming No Time to Die, where he plays a Bond villain.
But no matter how over-the-top Malek it, it is scenery-chewing aficionado Jared Leto who lives up to his recent reputation for colorful and flamboyant caricatures and ultimately wins the over-acting sweepstakes, bordering on camp with his taunting, soft-spoken, creepy-guy-with-a-limp who is much more annoying than he is interesting. Even worse than not even caring if the bad guy gets caught in a movie like this is not even caring if he even did it. I was so checked out by the time that big twist arrives (and I use that term generously), that I actually laughed out loud.
In the end, The Little Things is a disappointing example of talent gone awry, and a cautionary tale for anyone who thinks making a genre film is easy or that talented actors can’t get lost once in a while. Chalk this one up to the best intentions resulting in less-than-stellar results and move on. There’s really nothing to see here.