One of my favorite movie lines of all time comes from the 2002 film Adaptation. After hearing his brother Charlie rip apart his clichéd, ridiculously predictable crime thriller screenplay about a detective hunting for a serial killer, the ever-earnest Donald Kaufman offers up the defense, “Mom called it ‘psychologically taut.’” It is a line meant to satirize the rote trend of Silence of the Lambs copycats that came out in the late 90s, and it is this line that I can’t stop thinking about after watching The Little Things. Quite literally a time capsule experiment from the 90s brought back to life as if the film industry hasn’t evolved in 25 years, The Little Things has a kernel of an interesting story at its center, and floats by on star charisma (kinda) and one really, really gonzo performance. But for the most part, this is an attempt to make fresh cream out of spoiled milk – it’s a futile exercise that missed its window of opportunity, no matter how hard John Lee Hancock tries.
In 1990, Joe Deacon (Denzel Washington), a local deputy from Kern County, California, is forced to travel back to Los Angeles to pick up evidence for a case. Several years earlier, Deacon had been a famous homicide detective in L.A., leaving under mysterious circumstances relating to the case of an unsolved serial killer. As it just so happens, the killer has recently emerged from dormancy. When a young woman named Ronda Rathbun (Maya Kazan) goes missing, Joe must team up with the new hotshot detective assigned to the case, Jim Baxter (Rami Malek), to solve the crime and save the girl. And while there’s no clear evidence tying him to the crime, they now have a prime suspect: creepy crime buff Albert Spano (Jared Leto). Can Joe and Jim solve the case in time to save Ronda, and how far are they willing to go to do so?
The funniest thing about The Little Things is the fact that Hancock has clearly not changed anything about the screenplay since he first wrote it in the early 90s. I suppose he deserves credit for writing such a “clever” screenplay before plot points appeared in films as varied as Se7en, The Bone Collector, Zodiac, or the litany of psychological thrillers that filled the decade. But you’d think that after these films tackled the exact same topics – and often quite well – that he would either give up or change the details to find a sense of originality. Hell, I don’t even know how you make this movie after Bong Joon Ho perfected it in 2003 with Memories of Murder. Humorously, this is not the case. Hancock instead doubles down on every cliché in the book, twenty years after the mold was broken. There’s an old-school obsessive cop paired with a hot-shot rookie with a superiority complex. The old school cop has a “sixth sense” where he can feel crimes and “talk” to the bodies (something I thought was a metaphor before a body actually sits up and looks at him, and not in a supernatural way, either). The heroes say overly dramatic things like “God has given up on us,” while the villain says things like “We’re not so different, you and I.” And there’s a climax in an abandoned field that’s not only nearly shot-for-shot the ending to Se7en, but doesn’t even make sense in the time frame due to the existence of police dogs. These are all tropes that can be found in every thriller from 30 years ago, presented as if they are being discovered for the first time.
What’s even more insane about the film is that Hancock’s solution to these issues is not only to just ignore the last 30 years of cinema: he insists on setting the film during the 90s, too, as if the only issue with the original screenplay was the fact that time has passed. The film takes great pleasure in recreating the era, and pretending that the world hasn’t changed since that time. This results in a few key failures on the film’s part, some humorous, and some cringe-worthy. Perhaps the worst side-effect of the film’s “of-a-time” nature is the film’s cavalier treatment of a cop murdering an unarmed civilian – and not a suspect, or a bystander, but a key witness/victim of the crime. Not only does this feel kinda off-putting in the current era, it makes no damn sense to the story: this is a world where we’re supposed to assume that the police are doing everything they can to stop a serial killer, and instead they spend the entire time going on a wild goose chase to protect the officer who ruined their only lead. And we’re supposed to sympathize with them. Of course, I’m much more taken with the funniest aspect of the decision to keep the film’s 90s setting: Albert Spano. The crux of the film is finding out if Jared Leto’s Spano is actually the killer, or just some weird guy obsessed with true crime. The problem is, in the 90s, this twist doesn’t work. The character doesn’t seem realistic, and it seems pretty damn obvious that he’s a killer (if not THE killer). The irony is, had the film updated to modern day, this plot would work infinitely better. Imagine if the film had taken place in 2020, and Leto’s character was obsessed with true crime podcasts and documentaries. That would make his obsession all the more interesting, all the more realistic, and far more subtle than the guy with books in his car titled “How To Dispose Of A Body.” Such a wasted opportunity.
Although I’m not really sure that such a change would make much of a difference. The biggest problem facing The Little Things is how predictable it is, even as a film written in 1992. Every line plays like a bad cliché, every twist rings hollow, and it’s ultimately difficult to tell if it’s the aging or the era in general. Washington’s lines could just as easily have been uttered in the past 30 years of cinema by Morgan Freeman, Matthew McConaughey, or even himself. There’s kitschy reveals of dead bodies, flashbacks to traumatic events from the past, and ironic uses of upbeat songs (here it’s the song “I’ll Follow Him Wherever He Goes” as the two detectives, um, follow Albert Spano wherever he goes). Meanwhile, the film is so determined to convince us that Joe Deacon is a good detective, it forgets to actually show us that he is a good detective. It’s kind of hilarious, actually, the film goes out of its way to talk up how Joe Deacon is a legendary, humorous, charismatic figure, but the character Washington is playing is so far from that, it’s not even funny. Now, a part of this is because Washington is playing the shell of the man Joe once was. But that doesn’t explain why almost every policing decision he makes is the wrong one. At one point, I began to wonder if the secret message of the film was that Joe was actually the worst detective in history and no one realized it. I’m pretty sure that wasn’t the point, but you watch this film and tell me that Joe Deacon is anywhere near the level of Lt. Columbo – hell, I’d be impressed if you can prove he’s as good a detective as Jacques Clouseau.
I do want to commend the direction as a whole. This is, on paper, a well-made film. The sense of tension is present throughout, often thanks to the cinematography by John Schwartzman. Thomas Newman’s score is creepy and atmospheric, just as a thrill needs to be. But when all that good filmmaking is in service of something so obvious the thrills are gone, it’s hard to move anywhere past “respect,” when the true response should be “fun.” And while his direction suffers in other ways, Hancock at least knows how to stage a scene – nothing in this film reeks of desperation or flailing the way lesser films do, like, say, 2013’s Alex Cross. But as a whole, the movie’s filmmaking fails to make any choices that don’t possess a whiff of obviousness. This is the same dimly lit terror of a David Fincher movie, with a score clearly reminiscent of Silence of the Lambs or Basic Instinct – and weirdly comes and goes at infrequent times. And the editing by Robert Frazen is so sloppily handled it resembles that oft-mocked sequence from Malek’s Bohemian Rhapsody. This is, at its core, filmmaking I can only say I “respect,” when I should be using the word “fun.” And that’s a damning flaw in a film like this.
In terms of the acting, there’s not much to write home about. Denzel Washington gives what might be his worst performance in a decade. As Joe Deacon, Denzel fails to give us a reason to root for him in the slightest, making bad decision after bad decision while Washington hams it up for the camera. I can’t think of a performance this bad since Dejá Vu – not even the performance in Flight that I deeply dislike. Meanwhile, Rami Malek continues to show us that he only has two types of acting styles: Freddie Mercury or Flip McVicker. Here, he’s Flip McVicker, a boring, monotonous figure who’s supposed to be a young hotshot and instead mumbles every line incoherently and fails to convey a single believable emotion. Few other characters manage to make a splash in any shape or form. Kazan’s in approximately twelve seconds of screen time; fourth-billed star Natalie Morales fares slightly better with five minutes (I guess she’s ok in that time?). Terry Kinney is exactly what you’d expect in a stressed-out angry police captain. And despite limited screen time, phenomenal character actress Michael Hyatt steals every scene she has with little more than looks and inflections. And then…there’s Jared Leto. I am not a Jared Leto fan. I never have been, likely never will be. His style of acting is one of overacting, and it’s not my cup of tea. This is some of the most overacting Jared Leto has ever done on film, and yet…I don’t hate it. I know, I’m as shocked as you are. But Leto actually seems to get the type of film this is in a way the other actors – and even the writer/director – don’t seem to understand. Leto shows up and immediately acts like the creepiest motherf*cker to ever set foot on Earth, delivering creepy one-liner after creepy one-liner. It’s either the greatest or worst performance I’ve ever seen, but thanks to the level of comical creepiness he brings to this otherwise-lifeless film, I kinda feel like it’s the former. I hate that I have to compliment Leto in this way, but I’m nothing if not honest.
The Little Things is, across the board, the epitome of average. It reminds me of that type of film from the 90s that your parents saw on a date and vaguely remember, but wasn’t actually a real hit or anything, and you can’t figure out why anyone liked it at the time. I appreciate it as the type of classic star-and-story model that Hollywood really doesn’t make anymore, but Hancock really doesn’t make a compelling case for why they should. If you’re absolutely desperate for an old-school throwback, I suppose I could recommend this film, simply on the basis of the batsh*t performance Jared Leto is giving at the center. But otherwise, don’t waste your money on it. I can recommend at least ten films that did this same story better.
The Little Things is now playing in theaters, if you happen to be vaccinated