“The Little Things” Review

Despite a standout cast, Hancock’s film suffers from script inconsistencies

Craig Odenwald, Staff Writer

HBO/Warner Media

“The Little Things,” directed by John Lee Hancock, stands as a strange addition to the HBO Max lineup. Set in the 1990s, only because Hancock’s original script was penned then, “The Little Things” stars a trio of actors who achieved prominence in three different decades of film: Denzel Washington, Jared Leto and Rami Malek.

Despite a standout cast and stellar directing, Hancock’s film is hampered by a formulaic and tonally inconsistent script that drags down the film as a whole. Instead of setting a new standard for the neo-noir genre, “The Little Things” fails to leave a lasting impression.

The story, while formulaic, is bolstered by enough depth and nuance from the actors’ performances that one can’t help but wonder if this isn’t the season finale of a police procedural instead of a one-off movie. While “The Little Things” isn’t explosively original by any means, its main trio demonstrates a natural fluency in the noir thriller genre.

Detectives John Deacon (Denzel Washington) and Jimmy Baxter (Rami Malek) embark on a neo-noir journey through high crime (HBO/Warner Media)

It’s clear from the get-go that Washington is comfortable with the “old cop” routine. He plays John Deacon, a semi-retired cop with a chip on his shoulder. There’s a good amount of scowling into the distance to hammer that point home, but Hancock’s sense of pacing and atmosphere truly bolsters his performance.

At a few choice moments, Deacon imagines that the murder victims he failed to save over the years are watching him work his next case. They arrive silently, but without the tired “jump scare” moment many filmmakers use. He gazes at them, telling them and himself he’ll do better this time — he’ll catch the killer. In these brief glimpses into Deacon’s psyche, Washington works subtle magic.

Perhaps he should have worked alone. Deacon is paired up with Rami Malek’s Jimmy Baxter, a younger detective eager to learn. Fortunately, Hancock recognizes Malek isn’t one for a performance that hinges on naivete. Whether playing Elliot from “Mr. Robot” or Freddie Mercury from “Bohemian Rhapsody,” Malek always contributes an inquisitive attitude and a magnetic, hawk-like stare. Those qualities work well for a LA detective like Baxter.

When Baxter wants the case solved, so does the audience, but he’s not enough of a hotshot for there to be any conflict between the two of them. They agree on pretty much everything. Since they’re the two central protagonists, there isn’t much substance to their scenes beyond, “Yep, I agree. Good idea.” The problem caused by their lack of conflict intensifies when they question their top murder suspect: Jared Leto’s Albert Sparma.

Jared Leto’s portrayal of Albert Sparta terrifies despite a faulty script (HBO/Warner Media)

Unsightly.

Ghoulish.

Skin-crawling.

These words do justice to Leto’s prosthetically altered, grossly captivating performance. There’s a deadness in his eyes that contrasts the excitement in his smile. Sparma is always four steps ahead, but he doesn’t even know which way he’s walking — and he doesn’t care. However, Leto’s arresting performance is hampered by the dynamic duo because they consistently react to him the same way. Deacon gets angry at him, and Baxter tells him to calm down. Not ten minutes later, Baxter gets angry at him, and Deacon tells him he’s overreacting.

There’s no central force for Leto’s Sparma to latch onto and exploit because neither cop has conflict with one another, or enough time with him alone. Granted, Leto gets a few highly emotional moments with Baxter, but one could just as easily see Deacon swapped into those scenes — and it might serve the story better.

“The Little Things” has plenty of moments like that. Despite Hancock’s tight direction and the main trio’s nuanced performances, there’s the sense that not all the pieces fit together as well as they could. It’s a chilling film, but not always a captivating one. Capturing a strong tone without telling a strong tale, “The Little Things” stands more as a testament to intricate performances than an attractive addition to the noir zeitgeist.

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