The Little Things (2021)

*. “The past becomes the future, becomes the past, becomes the future, becomes the past . . .” That’s not quite Shakespeare but rather the drunken ramblings of Joe “Deke” Deacon (Denzel Washington), a cop with a past, and whose past is his future. You might even call him a burnt-out case. In the storied tradition of buddy-cop movies he’s paired in The Little Things with a buttoned-up case, the fresh-faced detective Jim Baxter (Rami Malek). Together they are looking for a serial killer in 1990 L.A. who may or may not be Jared Leto. Heaven knows Mr. Leto looks and acts suspicious enough. But is he quite as creepy as Malek? That’s a tough call.
*. I begin with Deke’s line about the past becoming the future because it gets at the main feeling I had watching The Little Things. Of course, just in the one-line plot summary I’ve given you can tell it’s a genre picture that is following all the usual conventions. Deke and Jimmy are the odd couple. Their investigation is frustrated by police protocol and rules. Deke likes to break those rules, though not such conventions as making a wall of photos to stare at while he tries to put all the pieces together. There’s even a scene late in the movie where Leto says to Malek “You know, you and I are a lot alike. In another lifetime, we could be friends.” My jaw dropped when I heard this and I said (aloud!) “He did not just say that!” But he did.

*. You could say it’s darker and more ambiguous than the usual detective thriller. I think every review of it made some comparison to Se7en, but I think the closer Fincher connection is to Zodiac, especially with the open ending. Still, we’re on familiar ground here. Writer-director John Lee Hancock wanted to upset the usual paint-by-numbers serial killer plot, and that may have been true, at least to some extent, when he wrote it. This much is to his credit. But things had moved on.
*. The script had been written by Hancock way back in 1993. Now think about that. Nearly thirty years ago. And this is the point I wanted to make about the past becoming the future. In my notes on Fatale I mentioned how its mixing of neo-noir with Fatal Attraction was evidence of the nostalgic rut that our culture has fallen into, as described in the writings of critics like Kurt Andersen and Ross Douthat.
*. The basic idea here is that the twenty-first century has produced nothing new in terms of its popular art (music and film), and that it now just keeps itself going by remaking and remixing stuff from the 1980s and ’90s. I always want to dig my heels in against arguments like this because they sound too much like just the sort of thing that people my age (who were young in the 1980s and ’90s) would say. But there are days when I think there’s really something to it. Like when I listen to student dance parties playing songs that were hits thirty or forty years ago, or when I see a movie like this being released in 2021.

*. It was originally (that is, back in 1993) going to be directed by Steven Spielberg, or Danny DeVito, or Clint Eastwood, or Warren Beatty. In the end, Hancock took it on himself, and he does a respectable job. He can handle suspense, and Thomas Newman’s score helps. The script, however, is nonsense. The character of Baxter didn’t work for me at all, especially at the end where he is easily manipulated by Leto’s slimey Albert Sparma. As Clint Eastwood might have reminded him, had he been helming this, there are two types of people in the world: those with bullets in their gun and those who dig.
*. Another script point, while I’m at it. Why on earth doesn’t Baxter just meet with Sparma at the bar? That way he can keep his eye on him, and even talk to him all night if he has to. Sparma seems like a lonely guy and would probably like to spend an evening talking to a real detective.  But instead they go with a plan that’s guaranteed to only keep him out of the house for a few minutes.
*. I can’t say I’m a big fan of Hancock’s writing anyway. I believe he wrote this right after A Perfect World, which was a film I hated. The Little Things isn’t quite as portentous and drawn out, but you can tell he was being tugged in that direction. What’s with the cross on the hill? Who is the Christ figure? Leto looks the closest. And I don’t think the banter all that great either. “Your dick is as hard as Chinese arithmetic”? Is Chinese arithmetic hard?

*. I guess the period atmosphere worked, though as I mentioned in my notes on Fatale it’s striking how movies like this make us feel as though the ’90s weren’t that long ago. But were the freeways in southern California really so deserted you could drive down them in reverse and never encounter another car? I don’t remember that.
*. All told, it’s still a reasonably effective thriller, though I thought Malek mostly wasted and Washington was performing just a couple of notches above mailing it in. Not a great movie, but if we really are living in a culture of nostalgia then it may be the best we can expect. In resurrecting a thirty-year-old script they were at least going back to the source.

15 thoughts on “The Little Things (2021)

  1. film-authority.com

    Hated A Perfect World too. The Little Things is better, but still feels very familiar. Surprised people have been watching this for nearly a year now, I guess there’s not many cop movies around…

    Reply
    1. Alex Good Post author

      Not a lot of new stuff anyway. I’m coming around to this idea of a cult of nostalgia. People have been complaining about franchises and reboots and remakes for a while but it’s getting painful. Now there’s a new Scream . . .

      That’s the weird/ironic thing here: it’s a thirty-year old script and it’s actually a bit original because that means it’s the source of so much of the rest of the culture that’s being recycled today.

      Reply
      1. film-authority.com

        Will be running Dune on Monday, but it’s particularly tricky since it’s the jumping off point for Star Wars and other things; does the familiarity help or not?

        I reckon we should go the other way and make it compulsory to remake every horror franchise every year and stop guilt-tripping the industry about it…

      2. Alex Good Post author

        Looks like I Know What You Did Last Summer has the right idea in just turning the whole thing into a series. The snake is eating itself.

  2. Bookstooge

    chinese math is VERY hard. You try adding 七 and 五 and figure out why you get 十二

    When you first started this review I wasn’t paying attention to the title and thought you were reviewing an old movie. When I realized this was from this year, it was like a bucket of cold water to the face.

    I think we have entered a cultural phase where we aren’t creating any more. And what feeds it is that people are very happy to accept Halloween Reboot 27 or Matrix the 4th or Fast and Furious 1002.

    Reply
    1. Alex Good Post author

      This definitely feels like a throwback. In part that’s for obvious reasons. The age of the script, the fact it’s set in 1990. But it still feels fresher than a lot of the reboot, retread crap coming out now. I don’t know if Hollywood is out of new ideas or they’re just stuck in this rut because these are the movies people go to see: ones with built-in brand recognition or franchise loyalty.

      Reply
      1. Alex Good Post author

        Probably going to be better than the second and third. Might actually redeem the franchise. Really wish the horror franchises (Halloween, Scream, etc.) would just drop it and come up with some new ideas. Are you keen on the new Matrix?

      2. Bookstooge

        I am extremely conflicted about the Matrix. I thought the first movie was the highpoint of SF moviedom. Then the sequels happened and the storyline just went places that made zero sense to me in terms of what I was expecting based on things in the first. I was extremely disappointed.

        So I am expecting to be disappointed again because the Watchowski’s are still in charge and I have zero faith in them.

        On the other hand, I have found that Origin stories are always the best because Beginnings are inherently creative. Most writers, etc seem to be able to pull off at least a good beginning but fail on expanding the idea. So I think 4 will be a good story.

        But just like the Indiana Jones franchise, Reeves has become the face of the Matrix and if they don’t make a good transition, it will degrade after this one. He’s getting old enough after all.

      3. Alex Good Post author

        My big problem with the subsequent Matrix movies was that the first one ended on such a satisfying note. I loved the movie and the way it ended made me feel like everything was wrapped up nicely. But then they had to do more.

      4. fragglerocking

        I think franchise loyalty is a big pull, in books as well as movies. I got well sucked into the Avengers franchise, and not for the high gloss and CGI, but because I became invested in the characters, I’ve done the same with books and TV Series, which is where movie land seems to be getting it’s inspiration from these days. And each to his own for the franchises, I couldn’t get into Star Wars nor Fast & Furious.

      5. Alex Good Post author

        Sometimes you keep at a series just for the sake of being a completist. I’ve still got Charlie Chan movies to cover!

        But I think it’s brand recognition/loyalty that underlies why Hollywood keeps going this route. Did the first movie make money? Well then people will be happy to pay for more.

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