Jared Leto can’t simply be in a movie. It isn’t enough for him to put on a costume and some makeup and deliver his lines in a convincing way. He has to do a Whole-Ass Thing, imbuing his character with idiosyncratic tics and foibles and, I dunno, maybe a nervous habit of juggling alley rats to avoid making eye contact when people speak to him. 2000’s Urban Legend might be the only time he’s ever played an average person on film, and while I refuse to actually look that information up, I totally understand his decision-making process. Why play a “normal” character when you can be an impenetrable storm of chaos, and/or Nicolas Cage’s brother? To date, the man has several more Oscar nominations than I do, so who am I to criticize? Well folks, I am a person who recently watched Leto do a Whole-Ass Thing in John Lee Hancock’s long-gestating thriller The Little Things, and while I can’t say that qualifies me to give the decorated actor notes about his craft, it absolutely qualifies me to talk about this historically buck wild performance.
Leto just received a Golden Globe nomination for his portrayal of murder suspect Albert Sparma in the crime drama, starring Denzel Washington and Rami Malek as a pair of police detectives who become obsessed with tracking down a serial killer murdering women with impunity in 1990 Los Angeles. To disappear into the role (as much as Leto can disappear – he’s a talented actor, but I never forget I’m watching Jared Leto), the Oscar-winner donned some subtle facial prosthetics, stringy hair, and an adorable little fake gut that can’t help but obviously be a pillow crammed into his shirt. He taunts the detectives with a hollow, raspy voice that sounds like it had to crawl through two miles of dusty catacombs before reaching your ears. The skin on his hands and face looks yellow and diseased. And he never seems to rise above ironic detachment, regarding both the detectives and the murders in which he has been implicated the same way you’d read the final score of the little league world series – cute, but ultimately holding no real interest. Sparma was certainly creepy on the page, but his portrayal in the film is 100% a monster of Leto’s creation. I chose that specific analogy because Leto decided, for some reason, that Albert Sparma should walk like Frankenstein.
No, really. Sparma lurches through the movie like his joints are powered by steam, heaving from scene to scene with the stiff-legged focus of the Iron Giant looking for the nearest bathroom. It’s like watching a man with no knees trying to roller skate. I would not be surprised if at one point during filming, Leto arrived on set with bolts glued to his neck. Please join me in taking several minutes to picture Denzel Washington’s reaction in this hypothetical scenario. Ok, let’s continue – Albert Sparma moves about as realistically as the Michael Jordan cutout Macaulay Culkin used to trick the burglars in Home Alone. He looks like a stop-motion character on his way to a meeting with his probation officer. A haunted wax figure would have an easier time getting through airport security than Albert Sparma.
Now, I can understand giving your character a limp, because maybe that informs some aspect of his character that would eventually lead him to murder. Maybe the bum leg makes him feel weak or inadequate. Maybe the manner in which he injured himself is a huge source of shame, with the limp serving as a constant, enraging reminder. But what I can’t understand is Leto swinging his legs around as if Albert Sparma is somehow the reanimated avatar of a half-dozen corpses struggling to walk in orthopedic shoes. I get that “be a huge fuckin’ weirdo” more or less gives an actor carte blanche to take some mighty big swings, and that some of those swings have resulted in classic performances like Marlon Brando in The Godfather, or Dennis Hopper in Blue Velvet. But my dude bursts into The Little Things like Boris fucking Karloff and does not get any more subtle from there. He might as well turn to the camera and say, “I’m a monster, get it? Or am I? Because, as we all remember, the true monster of Frankenstein was the doctor who created him. Also, Frankenstein is not actually the monster’s name; his name is Adam, as revealed in the 2014 docudrama I, Frankenstein.” Leto’s freaktastic shamble in The Little Things is exactly like him turning to the camera and saying all of that.
Albert Sparma’s voice is another Decision with a capital D. He speaks with the voice of a mummy’s guidance counselor, and while that winds up being extremely effective for the character, it is no less funny the longer I think about it. He sounds like a ghost whispering his PIN number on the phone with Citibank. He sounds like the audiobook narrator of a suicide note. It’s the voice of a close-up magician doing a set at a tattoo parlor. Sparma sounds like he has a part-time job calling people who have just watched The Ring video. It’s not as loud of a decision as his hydraulic leg movements, but Leto speaking with the voice of a cursed wizard toes the line of being distracting.
The other character choices for Albert Sparma are more understated – his yellow skin, his thousand-yard stare, his small gut at odds with his spindly frame. There are effective elements to Leto’s performance, and while I can’t quite decide whether or not the over-the-top Sparma is an example of good acting, he’s undeniably entertaining to watch. After news of his Golden Globe nomination broke, Leto said, “I did tell people this when I was making it that it’s either going to be the worst thing I’ve ever done or maybe one of the best, because I thought that I was taking a risk, and when that happens it can land either way… When you put on a nose and teeth and eyes and a walk and talk and throw it all together you have the opportunity to cross that line, but we wanted to just dance right around the line and not cross it.” Whether or not he crossed the line with Albert Sparma is almost irrelevant, because Sparma’s animatronic gait and haunted house voice have all but erased the line from view.
From an Oscar-hopeful to a Southern-fried heist to a video game movie going at the speed of Sonic, there’s some great new arrivals this month.
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