The Little Things (2021, John Lee Hancock)

There’s a point where Rami Malek gets exasperated at having to stake out suspected serial killer Jared Leto and it’s the most real moment of The Little Things because it’s been exasperating having to watch Malek stake out suspected serial killer Jared Leto. The scene’s somewhere near the end of the film’s second act but since Things plods along at an almost impossibly bad pace and Leto’s so terrible and so obvious and so godawfully terrible you can’t imagine he’s actually the main suspect in the movie and writer and director Hancock really can’t be so inept….

Anyway. It’s hard to keep track of where one is during the experience of The Little Things. The film’s final surprise—only surprise—comes at the end, when it becomes tragically, comically unaware of itself. But then every subsequent scene is so predictable you can call out the reveals; Hancock even packages them up so you get to unwrap them and feel rather satisfied Hancock really can’t pull one over. No matter what, there’s nothing he can do competently. At least the universe makes sense.

The first act of Things is not terrible. It’s definitely slow and it soon becomes clear Thomas Newman’s score is going to be at best grating, but Denzel Washington’s fine and potentially better and Malek’s impressive in his showy part. Washington’s a disgraced former L.A. sheriff’s homicide detective, Malek’s his replacement. They meet because Washington—now deputy in the sticks—comes to town on a contrivance and his old partner Chris Bauer (who’s great, albeit barely in the movie) is now Malek’s partner and there’s another contrivance or two to get them together at a crime scene, where Malek gets to see Washington’s detecting magic.

So… Little Things is terrible procedural. The movie’s set in 1990 because Hancock can’t figure out how to make it hold water without cell phones and social media so how could he possibly do it with any pertinent technology. Plus he needs a phone booth to make it work. Multiple phone booths. Couldn’t figure it out with out them. Seriously, there have to be murder mystery subplots from 1990 soap operas more engaging than this movie. The first act makes it seem like we’re getting slow burn Washington and Malek performances and a cerebral-ish murder mystery.

Nope.

We get Leto, hair greased up, wearing tummy padding (Washington starts with some but it inexplicably goes away once he changes out of his uniform into his “detective again” outfit), giving a performance so obvious he wouldn’t have gotten cast on “Barney Miller” much less “Night Court” as a scuz bucket.

But given the film’s supporting cast—someone really liked “The Wire,” in addition to Bauer, Michael Hyatt plays Washington’s old coroner pal. Terry Kinney’s in it as the ostensibly churchy captain, who hates Washington for some mysterious reason we’ll find out about in stylized flashbacks right up until the finale for that one surprise; Kinney wasn’t on “The Wire” but “Oz.” So someone liked HBO shows from the aughts. He doesn’t want Washington working with Malek or vice versa because Malek’s his new protege. Malek even goes to his church. Maybe. The movie’s got this whole “Washington’s not the right kind of Christian” thing going on and it seems entirely insincere.

Because you’re giving Things the benefit of the doubt—Newman’s music aside, it’s technically competent plus. Like, John Schwartzman’s photography is technically excellent. It’s excellent photography of boring shots because Hancock’s tediously obvious in his composition but it looks good. And Robert Frazen’s editing is… not incompetent. Frazen cuts for Malek’s performance for much of the film, which is a fine showcase (makes Washington a bit of a bystander but it’s not bad per se). Then Leto shows up and it goes to pot because it’s never clear we’re actually supposed to be taking Leto’s absurd character seriously. The Little Things is supposed to be a serious movie, right? Like… Leto’s not giving a performance for a serious movie.

He’s comically bad. And once it’s clear it’s not a problem for Hancock, well, it’d take a lot for Things to make an actual plop in the toilet.

But it does. Hancock’s got that monster reveal and big plop.

Big plop.

Hyatt’s good, not in it enough; ditto Kinney. Natalie Morales’s in it in the background to be a female character who Malek gets to act out around? It’s a weird thing. It’s a bad part. But it’s still weird why she’s around. Like, Hancock isn’t just bad at writing procedurals or coming up with reveals, he’s also bad at writing the people. Like… if it weren’t for Washington and Malek, Things would be even shorter on personality, which seems impossible but they really do a lot. Even though they’re never more than fine together. Their characters are too thin, the writing’s too bad, Hancock’s direction’s too tepid.

The Little Things is trite tripe but I suppose Leto does succeed in proving he can hit absolute zero in terms of worthless acting.

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