Saturday, February 6, 2021

Washingtons State: THE LITTLE THINGS

No Denzel Washington movie is all bad because, no matter what, at least it has Denzel Washington in it. His latest, The Little Things, tests the thesis a little. It is a slow, dreary murder mystery that’s yet another movie of cops with flashlights tromping around scenes in which corpses of young women are splayed out surrounded by inscrutable clues and a stringy-haired creeper lurks in the margins as the obvious suspect—or is he? The thing is a procession of cliches — interrogation scenes, press conferences, stakeouts, cat-and-mouse games, solemn autopsies, and crime scene photography, and all the while detectives frown and sigh and triangulate — propped up by workmanlike filmmaking craft from John Lee Hancock (The Blind Side) with nary a surprise. Even the twists arrive with a dull thunk as the plot gears turn. 

 But then there’s a bit of an acting class going on in the center, in which Washington single-handedly puts the entire movie on his sturdy shoulders and almost makes the thing work. He seems to be doing very little—sitting still, talking slowly, moving deliberately. He quietly murmurs his lines. He’s interior to the point of flat. And yet he’s such a confident, capable Movie Star, that even tamping down his megawatt charisma, he holds every frame every moment he’s on screen. We’re told he’s a detective who dropped out the LAPD after a particularly troublesome case. Now his replacement, a buttoned-up serious investigator (Rami Malek), is looking into unsolved murders that point back to that case. It’s a nagging open wound for the both of them. The movie takes its simple stock premise and noodles around a character study at the margins, though we never learn overmuch about these men, and the ultimate question boils unsatisfyingly down to: does a tough case make a tunnel-visioned weirdo out of these guys, or are tunnel-visioned weirdos drawn to tough cases? Either way they pick at the faintest loose ends, pretty quickly zeroing in on a grade-A creeper of an appliance repairman (Jared Leto) who sure seems guilty. He’s so perfectly off in all the right ways; but so, too, is the case against him. What a conundrum. The shame, then, is that the whole lousy project goes pretty much nowhere and takes its sweet time getting there. What remains fascinating is how much Washington can do with so little, and how actors like Malek and Leto work so hard throughout and still have no chance of catching up.

Perhaps John David Washington has an unfair advantage in the department of younger stars hoping to follow in the great man’s footsteps and capture some of that natural charisma. He is, after all, the legend’s son. There’s something totally captivating about his screen presence, and malleable as he can be both full of wily bravado (like in BlacKkKlansman) or suave and coiled (like in Tenet). He’s so close to great. But there’s also a sense he’s not fully done cooking; he has the confident physicality of an athlete, and the soulful stares of a thespian, but he’s yet to have the exact right part to unlock his appeal. Seeing him in Malcom & Marie proves that maybe big meaty theatrical dialogue might get him there yet. The film teams him with Zendaya in a two-hander shot in grainy black and white for an authentic small-scale indie feel. It’s set over the course of a night as a young couple of Hollywood up-and-comers start off bickering and soon end up in a full-blown romantic argument that rumbles and rattles in long tangles of overwritten prose. 

 That the performers are two of the most promising new movie stars to come along in some time carries the movie — small, self-conscious, puffed up — much further than it deserves. Zendaya is a stormy, smoky inscrutable stunner in a gorgeous dress or less as she casually unravels her critiques and complaints about her swaggering, self-important director boyfriend. The film’s first twenty minutes or so are crackling with unspoken resentments and relational misjudgments expertly teased in these tense and sensual performances, the relationship’s flaws tensely embodied in unspoken shifts of weight and design. Alas, unlike the intensity and escalation of a John Cassavetes or Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? argument, which are clear inspirations, this film’s bickering and bantering gets awfully tiresome and repetitive, failing to illuminate by minute 80 or 100 more than we’ve groked in the first flush of interest back in reel one. Writer-director Sam Levinson, who pulled off a much better two-hander in the great recent Zendaya-starring Special Episode of his otherwise overripe HBO show Euphoria, here finds moments of tight squirming intimacy, but ultimately can’t keep the novelty from wearing off fast. It becomes a case study of two fantastic performers easily outpacing their material. That it almost works anyway is to their credit.

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