They say the Devil is in the details, and they certainly would be right about The Details, a suburban gothic fairy tale starring Tobey Maguire, Elizabeth Banks and Laura Linney. As with butterflies and hurricanes, writer-director Jacob Aaron Estes demonstrates how the picayune particles in life can snowball into out-and-out disaster. Estes piles on the mishaps in a movie that starts out wobbly, but pulls together with a triumphantly disturbing finish.
The Details picks up with Jeff (Tobey Maguire) recounting the sources of his unraveling. Jeff practices gynecology, tends his backyard, and enjoys marriage with Nealy (Elizabeth Banks). Only upon closer inspection do we notice hairline fractures in this picture of yuppie perfection. Raccoons are tearing up the lawn. Jeff’s plans for redoing the house are threatened by a crazy neighbor (Lila, played by loony Laura Linney). And his relationship with Nealy turns out to be more brittle than unshakeable. Jeff – with his OCD response to the raccoons but otherwise dithering tepidness, is not helping matters one bit.
Estes takes his time, often lingering on scenes that provide neat flourishes but lack the motive energy which might capture the audience’s attention. At the onset, for example, he introduces us to objects that contribute to Jeff’s misfortunes, pausing with tight shots of a potted plant, a bottle of poison, and a cheese plate. The self-consciously quirky presentation screams for attention, but with little yet invested in the story, most viewers will likely “get it” and then be lulled to stupor by Maguire’s monotone voice.
Later, we watch Jeff vs. the Racoons in gory, protracted detail. Dousing the lawn with mountain lion urine; purchasing poison; larding pet food with said poison. Discussing the mountain lion urine. All in all, too much. Estes also writes in a quantity of dialogue that gives the actors space to inhabit their roles but nevertheless drags down the pace. The Details smacks of respectable indie auteur-ness, but when Jeff started talking building regulations with Lila, I found myself wishing for more aggressive editing.
Luckily, The Details packs more than building regulation chitchat in its 91 minutes. The cast delivers solid, even compelling performances. Tobey Maguire leverages his unsettling man-child looks to realize a morally insensate yet sympathetic character. Ms. Linney steals scenes with her malfunctioned Stepford Wife turned cat-lady performance. Watching her try to seduce Jeff will elicit a mixture of cringes and scared laughter, in the best way possible. Elizabeth Banks credibly portrays Jeff’s wife, a character with her own needs and desire that sadly are only glancingly alluded to. The other characters stand out less well. Kerry Washington plays Jeff’s close (close) friend in a few scenes that feel mostly contrived. Ray Liotta acts the upset husband, and while his appearances are limited and 1-D, it’s always a pleasure to watch Ray Liotta being upset.
The Details also looks good, often coated with a Technicolor sheen of vivid color that augments the surreal, fairy tale feel. Costume choices may not stand out as Oscar catnip, but play a fairly salient part in realizing the world of The Details. Jeff favors Portland plaids as a hipster-yuppie ought to, and Lila apparently loves flower print. I.e., Psychotic flower print. The soundtrack builds creeping anticipation with a restrained yet menacingly quickstep, chimey beat. Not groundbreaking – but that does not diminish its potency.
The second half of the movie will reward those who bore with the minutiae of Jeff’s steps and missteps. At this point the protagonist has experienced a few FML moments such as (spoiler alert) cheating on his wife a couple times. Jeff attempts to expiate these mistakes by helping a friend from pickup basketball (Dennis Haysbert). Here, the plot quickly verges into the darkly fantastic and some may find that the result compares unfavorably to other parables of suburbia like American Beauty. But I don’t think Estes means to make a comprehensively bookending, iconic statement about the American condition. Rather, he steers The Details into the grotesque to first and foremost entertain, and entertain he does. Jeff finally starts flipping out, and Allstate man Haysbert starts doing things with his hands that are less than good. Some of the metaphors that Estes resorts to may be painfully obvious -- pianos falling from the sky, for example, should be strictly the province of Bugs Bunny episodes. Nonetheless, the movie leads to a conclusive catharsis that feels zany but undeniably powerful. Stick with it, because paying attention to The Details will eventually pay off.
"The Details" opens November 2, 2012 and is rated R. Comedy, Drama. Written and directed by Jacob Aaron Estes. Starring Elizabeth Banks, Kerry Washington, Laura Linney, Ray Liotta, Tobey Maguire.