Writer and director John Lee Hancock has long created aggressively average films. While his films “The Blind Side” and “The Founder” coax competent performances out of their leads, Hancock’s latest neo-noir crime flick “The Little Things” highlights his pitfalls as a director and screenwriter.
Released Jan. 29, the film follows two mismatched California law enforcement agents, veteran deputy sheriff Joe Deacon, played by Denzel Washington, and young promising detective Jim Baxter, played by Rami Malek. We watch the pair desperately attempt to arrest their prime suspect Albert Sparma, played by Jared Leto, in a serial murder case.
While Deacon and Baxter scour a 1990 Los Angeles for clues that might tie the city’s murders to Sparma, Deacon’s past as a LAPD detective slowly reveals itself through interactions with old coworkers and flashbacks.
“The Little Things'' feels a lot like a watered-down version of “Se7en,” a 1995 crime thriller. The overplayed narrative of a jaded and divorced cop passing on expertise to their young and hungry counterpart — who ultimately inspires a sense of renewed vigor in their mentor — came off as uneventful, and frankly, boring.
In addition to its underwhelming storyline, the film's award-winning, standout cast struggles to transcend Hancock's lackluster material.
With this, Washington as always, delivers. While not brimming with the same energy required of him in past roles, he remains wholly believable as a washed-up Kerns County deputy. The agony and alienation he experiences in his old stomping grounds of Los Angeles is effectively communicated through his eyes alone.
In contrast, Malek is horribly miscast. Intended to be a charismatic LAPD detective opposite of Washington, his blank, unfocused gaze and gruff-yet-nasally inflection does not lend itself to believability. Of the three main roles, Malek would have better fit either of his co-stars parts.
If I had to describe Leto’s performance in one word, it would be adequate. Although a minor physical transformation is achieved through a prosthetic nose and weight gain, his lack of monologues or character development leaves Leto with little opportunity to shine. That said, comparing this performance to his past misfire in “Suicide Squad” paints “The Little Things” as an acting masterclass.
Viewers are given little reason to sympathize with either lead. Scenes that felt like they should have been big – especially toward the second half of the film — fell flat. Outbursts of emotion from Deacon and Baxter feel cheap and predictable.
Robert Franzen’s editing is also not without criticism. At best, the film maintains an unassuming pace. At worst, pivotal scenes are littered with an abundance of distracting cuts.
Ironically, I found the film’s greatest strengths in its smallest details. A few of my favorites include the art-deco storefronts frequented by various characters, its establishing shots of the California interstate backdropped by nighttime LA, and Thomas Newman’s beautifully done, instrumental score. Each of these small details offer the viewer hope in the film’s potential to kick into higher gear — one of which never arrives.
As a mindless popcorn flick, ”The Little Things” works, but those looking for something more to unpack might find better luck elsewhere.
Rotten Tomatoes: 46%
Traveler Score: C-