In this weird world, “The Little Things” is a hit movie. It gives us three Oscar-winning actors — Denzel Washington, Rami Malik (from “Bohemian Rhapsody”), and Jared Leto, who played the Joker in “Suicide Squad.”
Director John Lee Hancock (who made “The Blind Side” and “Saving Mr. Banks”) also gives us what seems to be a mystery story. Washington and Malik play official detectives trying to find out who has killed a series of young Los Angeles women, a share of them prostitutes (and one of them from Manhattan, Kansas).
Their suspect is a part-time appliance store employee, Sparma (Leto). He is a crime buff with a police scanner who lives near one of the recent victims and who, a few years before, confessed to a murder he did not commit.
So “The Little Things” is nearly hard-boiled. Washington plays a divorced or separated deputy from Bakersfield who used to be an L.A. county cop. But, we learn a little at a time, his fixation on this serial killer case ended with him having a heart attack and his moving north.
Later still we find out that a medical examiner friend helped cover up a tragic mistake he made while working on this extremely long-running case. While Deac is back in L.A. on another matter, he meets and (oddly) befriends Det. Jim Baxter, who is under pressure to identify the serial killer. The feds are coming to town to take over the investigation the following Monday.
The film follows both Deac and Jim, even when they follow Sparma to his favorite strip club, though they sit outside waiting (for hours) for him to come out. Hancock seems to be one of those directors who believe that top-rank acting requires lots of screen time.
So “The Little Things,” even in its last reel, doesn’t ever have a chance to develop any momentum. It is constantly being stopped for stake-outs. And for cut outs to Jim’s family life and Deac’s past and oddly dramatized experiences on this case.
When something does happen in the story, it may not make any sense. As a suspect is being questioned, Deac suggests mentioning a past victim named Mary. This makes the suspect freak out. Later he kills himself. But the viewer may come away from the theater trying to work out why the suspect reacted as he did or what use the suspect is to the movie’s plot.
The film’s great weakness, from the traditionalist’s point of view, has to do with its climax. Detective stories need to end with the detectives solving the case, or so I think.
Still, “The Little Things” does have a pervasive air to it. Things aren’t quite right in L.A. County, and haven’t been for a long time. Sparma’s scheme to have Deac officially caught while illegally searching his apartment, while the story-telling here is botched, shows us how “the system” can ham-string law enforcement professionals.
Sparma again shows his foresight in his cat and mouse game with Deac out on the divided four-lane. How can a man so prescient fail to guess what he shouldn’t, late in the film, say to frustrated Jim?
So movie-goers may have some quibbles with “The Little Things.” Still, it takes us to places we’ve only seen before in Michael Mann’s great “Collateral.” Then, too, the new movie makes us think about several different and interesting personalities.
And it gives us an excuse to get out of the house. A well-intended film like this one requires no further reason for being.