“The Little Things”

I’m ready for the good old days. The nowadays are tough. And even the glimmers of hope – vaccines, new leadership, an improving economy – just make me all the more ready to turn the page and get back to the way things were. I’ve started to listen to NPR again (I couldn’t stomach the news for a while). And my wife and I are re-watching and re-devouring the fancifully optimistic “The West Wing.”

We are also part of a 90s movie night series with some friends (though it’s on hiatus right now). The 90s – those were the days for some fun movies. Twisty plots, soaring musical scores, ridiculous action sequences and bad guys that everyone can get pissed at. 

“The Little Things,” now streaming on HBO Max, bills itself as a throwback to those movies, drawing on many familiar tropes: Joe “Deke” Deacon (Denzel Washington) is an old detective with a haunted past. Once upon a time, he was a brilliant investigator – best close rate in the area – but now (in the 1990s) he’s rusting away as a deputy Sherriff in Kern County, California.

Jim Baxter (Rami Malek) is a young, idealistic, hotshot detective in the Los Angeles Sherriff’s Department. He has a bleeding heart for victims and won’t rest until justice is served. There’s a serial killer afoot in L.A. – really brutal stuff – so Baxter is on high alert.

Meanwhile, Deacon starts to nose around the area, too, thinking that the recent murders look a lot like some scenes from his still-murky-but-obviously-painful past.

Both Baxter and Deacon dig for a little while – sometimes in sync, sometimes at odds with each other. When they finally get together to chat about it, Baxter confesses his unrelenting addiction to crime-avenging. Deacon warns him, “There are no angels.”

Eventually the pair meet another trope: Creepy auto mechanic Albert Sparma (Jared Leto), who is ham-handedly setting off all the murderer alarm bells. Still, Sparma is pretty smart – more like conniving – so he can’t be pinned down. Even for us, the audience, it’s not perfectly clear whether he’s the killer or just a super sketchy crime buff.

At this point, anyone who has watched a fair share of 90s movies, especially in the action and thriller genres, will no doubt be shrouded in a feeling of familiarity. Whether it feels more like a warm blanket of nostalgia or a suffocating sheath of unoriginality may vary. But it’s there.

For me, the feel of the movie was pretty appealing. Sinister, but not soul-crushing. Realistic enough, but nothing deeply stressing. Complicated but not confusing. Idealistic but not preachy. (Well, most of the time. Some of Malek’s lines are a bit much.)

I also enjoyed the acting (I mean, with those three leads, how could I not?) and parts of the bendy plot. For I’d say about 90 minutes of the two-hour movie I felt transported to the good old days of 90s cinema.

But the rest of it was sort of botched, a cheap knock-off of the thrills and chills of movies like “Seven” or “Silence of the Lambs.” The ending, in particular, betrayed the movie. It was cheesy and not half as clever as it took itself to be.

Come to think of it, a lot of 90s movies also failed in exactly these ways. So I guess, in the end, it’s not a 90s movie that I really long for. It’s a good movie. Just as I’d settle for some good 2021 days, so too I’d go for a movie with good atmosphere, both realism and idealism, good acting and a fun, well-executed plot.

Alas, “The Little Things” isn’t quite there.

“The Little Things” is rated R for violent/disturbing images, language and full nudity.

 

 

Matt Duncan, a former Coastal View News editor, has taken physical but not emotional leave from Carpinteria to be a philosophy professor at Rhode Island College. In his free time from philosophizing, Duncan enjoys chasing his kids around, watching movies and updating his movie review blog, duncansreeldeal.blogspot.com.

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