Actors are faced with a difficult proposition the moment they accept a script. They're granted a multitude of ways to approach the role, and their approach is largely determined by who they are not just in real life, but how the audience perceives them. These are the most famous examples of stars and how they attack a script:
Daniel Day-Lewis is renowned and celebrated for his method acting approach. He becomes the character that he's tasked with portraying. He's essentially a chameleon, disappearing into his character and becoming nearly unrecognizable. For Phantom Thread, Day-Lewis learned how to cut, sew, and recreate a Balenciaga dress. It wouldn't be enough for him to step on set and learn who the character is during the first, second or third scene. No, the preparation for Day-Lewis begins months ahead of the first day on set, while the writer is still curating the script.
On the contrary, Denzel Washington is recognizable as Denzel Washington whether he's playing a rogue detective in Training Day or a high school football coach in Remember the Titans. And we love him for that because we wouldn't want Denzel to be anybody other than Denzel—it wouldn't feel like acting; it would feel artificial. This may be the most difficult approach to accomplish because it necessitates a nearly flawless resume and the ability to transcend the limiting word 'typecast,' but instead make a name for yourself as your self. George Clooney is another actor who falls into this realm.
Lastly, there's the in-between approach. The actor who toes the line between full method and a familiar celebrity presence. The first actor who comes to mind in this scenario is Leonardo DiCaprio. There's both a piece of Leo in every role that he plays and vice versa. He's not just Rick Dalton in Once Upon a Time... in Hollywood, he's Leonardo DiCaprio starring as Rick Dalton in Once Upon a Time... in Hollywood. He may portray Rick Dalton, but underneath all of that drunken, self-loathing Rick Daltonness, there's Leo.
To measure every actor up against this standard would be unfair because DDL, Denzel and Leonardo are all once-in-a-generation stars that'll never be paralleled in their respective pursuits. With that being said, countless other actors have been successful by defining themselves underneath one of those acting umbrellas.
At first glance, The Little Things is another murder mystery drama featuring a star-studded affair, much like True Detective or Zodiac. The formula seems simple enough; let Denzel be Denzel and play Rami Malek at shooting guard to garner energy off the quality caliber of performance that Washington demands. And just to spice things up, cast the infamous Jared Leto to play the twisted heavy who puts the audience in a position of immediate tension when his crazy eyes initially grace the screen.
The Little Things nearly accomplished all of those things. Denzel was Denzel because he can't help but be Denzel. And we should applaud him for that. Every movie that he takes into his hands becomes his because he's so unequivocally charming and has been the most demanding screen presence in cinema for north of 30 years. We as the audience know exactly who Denzel's character is going to be going into his movie because we're so accustomed to witnessing his greatness. He lifts D-movies to B-movies, and catapults average movies to A+ movies. He's LeBron James. Every scene he touches becomes his, and the scene is inherently better off that way. But if Denzel Washington has been LeBron James for the last 30-or-so years, then who is his sidekick, Rami Malek, in The Little Things? In short, he's Matthew Dellavedova.
For everything charismatic and distinct about what Denzel brings to the big screen, regardless of what character, setting or film he's assigned, Rami Malek brings the opposite. He brings baggage rather than flare. His presence is unintentionally discomforting in The Little Things when he's supposed to be the young lead detective that the audience gets behind. It felt impossible to get behind him in this because his performance was so inhumane.
I enjoyed his role as Philip Seymour Hoffman's test subject in The Master (2012) and I'm sure Mr. Robot is a wonderful show, but every other performance of his has left me feeling—for lack of a better word—icky. He isn't charming, he's ironically robotic, and almost procedural in his approach. In other words, the viewer can always tell that he's acting. He doesn't disappear into the role and he doesn't stand out on the screen as a "movie star." I genuinely felt bad for the young girls who played his daughters in this movie, and squirmed in my seat when he kissed one of them on the cheek.
What disappoints me the most is that I might've truly adored this movie if it weren't for Malek's performance. If Detective Jim Baxter had only been portrayed by John Krasinksi or John David Washington, The Little Things would've been my early contender for Movie of the Year. Malek forced me out of the movie on too many occasions to omit his performance as just an "off night." Jared Leto and Denzel thrived in their portrayals, and although I'm rather indifferent when it comes to Leto, his character was impossible to take your eyes off during his time on screen. That was more a result of Leto's performance opposed to the framing of it.
The direction on the behalf of John Lee Hancock—a man who refuses to make a movie without the first word of the title being "The" (The Founder, The Blindside, The Highway Men, The Rookie)—was average at best. He didn't try anything experimental, but he didn't fuck up any of the technical necessities that would've sunk this movie into an even deeper hole. It should be noted that he did adapt a novel into the screenplay, so there should be some credit granted there. I found the story to be potentially predictable at times, but was pleasantly surprised by the final act.
The Little Things isn't the best movie of the year, nor is it an astounding contribution to the murder mystery genre, but it is a Denzel movie at the end of the day. That was just enough to get me to go and see it in a theater. And I thoroughly enjoyed my time spent with the man who is likely the most charismatic person on planet Earth. Movies like The Little Things simply wouldn't work without Denzel, and that's the true testament to his greatness.