A Denzel movie shouldn’t suck this much. Denzel Washington is an actor of radiant charisma and devastating delivery. He can melt our hearts with that signature smile, brighter than the Times Square billboard. He rattles our limbs with the pulse-pounding thrill of his masterful monologuing. He makes our souls soar or shatter with a glance, euphoric in victory or dark in defeat. THIS is why he’s an eight-time Oscar-nominee/two-time winner, and also why I can’t surf past Virtuosity whenever I happen upon it. Denzel Washington is so damn good that he turns even nonsense movies into eye-popping entertainment. Not this one though. The Little Things just sucks.
John Lee Hancock, director of The Blind Side, Saving Mr. Banks, The Founder and The Highwaymen, writes and helms this original crime drama that plays like an airport novel that should have been left behind. Washington headlines as Joe ‘Deke’ Deacon, former LAPD who’s moved out to the sticks, where the worst crime is vandalism of a local steak eatery’s sign. (“Black Angus” in big lights just begs for some cheeky “g” smashing.) However, an emerging serial killer case in his old stomping grounds draws Deke back to Los Angeles, where he is not welcome.
His old colleagues bristle at his return, whispering in guarded tones about some mysterious trespass. Hotshot detective Jim Baxter (Rami Malek) doesn’t care about all that. Ambitious and determined to crack this case, he’s drawn to Deke’s sharp mind. After some macho banter, the two are unofficial partners, tracking a killer who is targeting young women. They soon find a promising suspect in smirking slimeball, Albert Sparma (Jared Leto). But when collaring this creep proves tricky, the pair begin to work outside of the law to bust him.
From the moment he strides onscreen, Washington is mesmerizing, even though Hancock gives him a casual glow-down, draping him in a beige cop uniform and pronounced beer gut. With a soft grin and a slow step, Deke is established as cooly confident, even without the typical signs of Hollywood hero slickness. Those go to Malek, whose detective struts in a dark, sharply pressed suit, moving with the speed and focus of a shark on the hunt. Striking foils, the two could be a terrific onscreen duo. Unfortunately, Malek can’t match Washington for presence. His intensity feels too stiff, and perhaps showy, to crack into authenticity. Then in comes Leto, to slobber his method all over.
Washington owns his role with an effortless gravitas, making every little thing matter, from his slight nods, to his steely gaze, and the almost imperceptible tensing of his lower lip. Leto goes the other way with Sparma, throwing himself smug mug first into a bunch of sketchy dude cliches, from scraggly hair and a dead-eyed stare to a taunting manner and crooked smirk. Leto’s voice is a cousin to his Joker, a pretentious performance of menace in a hushed tone. All this makes his Sparma an obvious mark for suspicion, spooky, yet ultimately shallow. He’s practically a composite sketch of any creep who has leered on public transit.
The supporting cast offers some shine thanks to Michael Hyatt (Crazy Ex-Girlfriend) and Natalie Morales (Parks and Recreation). However, Hancock gives them criminally little to do. Let me put it this way: The Little Things has more naked female corpses than it does female characters worth a damn. Women in this movie are one-note wives, nags, victims, or in one particular case, a female officer whose sole function in the plot is to be disastrously bad at her job. This is a movie of MEN. Men desire. Men strive. Men kill. Men hunt for justice. Women are either props to give Hancock excuses for some titillating violence, or they exist to prop up the male leads, serving as backstory dump sites.
In the end, The Little Things boasts three Oscar-winning actors but gives them roles so sh*tty that only Washington comes out clean. Hancock offers some jolts of excitement, like a car-tailing sequence involving a gambit tire-screechingly misplayed. Yet, his plot relies heavily on ghoulish spectacle and tiresome machismo, making for a grim and dull watch. Not even a conclusion studded by twists can spark thrills, just irritation. Thus, in a wide world of crime drams, this one is unforgivably underwhelming.
The Little Things is in theaters and on HBO Max on January 29.
Epidemiologists do not think it’s safe yet to go to theaters even with social distancing and safety measures in place. This review of a theatrical release is not an endorsement or suggestion otherwise. This film was reviewed via a screening link.
Header Image Source: HBO Max