Sundance 2011 Review: THE DETAILS
To quote the Kottonmouth Kings, “Suburban life so pretty and clean, Suburban life ain’t what it seems.” In Jacob Aaron Estes’ THE DETAILS, suburban life is about as far from pretty and clean as it gets. Tobey Maguire plays Dr. Jeff Lang, a B-level doctor, a middling husband, an okay father, and a substandard friend. You see, Jeff is average, and for a guy overly concerned with what others think of him, that’s just not going to cut it. Jeff is languishing in suburban hell, trying desperately to improve his family’s standard of living with a backyard full of beautifully lain sod. The only problem? That damn raccoon that keeps digging up the sod every single night, destroying the yard and wasting the Langs’ dwindling funds. It is this single raccoon that unravels Jeff, that single raccoon that leads to more mayhem than even the KMK boys get into on a typical Saturday night.
Jeff’s not pleased with his lot in life, despite all of its trappings of Pottery Barn-branded bliss. The Langs are stunningly square – the type of people who still think their Prius is saving the environment, the kind of couple that practicing making pesto with their friends. But Jeff has a dark side that’s set to be unleashed on those around him – a dark side that involves sex and drugs and a bag of money and, overall, some really bad choices. The raccoon is just the start of a downward spiral that is only sporadically punctuated by concerns that feel real enough, like Jeff fighting with wife Nealy (a bland Elizabeth Banks struggling in an underwritten role). Sure, we may get to see Tobey Maguire get put through a man-size ringer and there will be some very surface laughs with crazy cat lady neighbors (a sublimely unhinged Laura Linney) and cracks about surfing the web for sensual massage-giving “escorts,” but THE DETAILS just doesn’t reach the root of all the problems it presents.
The real problem with THE DETAILS is that all of the (ahem) details about it sound startlingly standard and unoriginal. It is a black comedy about life in the suburbs. Its main plot drivers are a series of unfortunate events that steadily ratchet up in scope and improbability. Its characters are consumed with how they look to others. It has a snappy, off-kilter score to remind us of just how quirky it is. Even the twists thrown in (and there are plenty, mostly of the wacky happenstance variety) to THE DETAILS don’t save it from feeling vaguely like a bunch of stuff we’ve seen before. Writer and director Jacob Aaron Estes knows the hazards of unhappiness in the suburbs – this is the man who brought us MEAN CREEK, after all – but THE DETAILS rarely finds anything new to tell us. There are brief flashes of depth, made sharper by intermittently biting humor, but THE DETAILS never achieves the promise of its pieces.
Tobey Maguire performs admirably in THE DETAILS, though Jeff is not an admirable character by any stretch of the imagination. Maguire’s gameness at taking on such a loathsome role is obvious in his constant stream of facial expressions that hedge just to the right side of hammy to let us know he’s in on the joke. He’s the star of the film, to be sure, but he’s also very much its genuine center. THE DETAILS opens with a scene that is best described as a spoiler, and it’s Maguire’s task to keep everything engaging as we hurdle towards the inevitable.
The devil is not in THE DETAILS, there’s just not enough burn in the film for it to speak to every point it attempts to raise. But there’s some damn good stuff here – sparks of hellfire to push it all forward snappily, performances from Maguire and Linney strong enough to keep us engaged (even when we know how it all ends), and the nagging sense that Estes knows more than he’s telling us about the terrible things that happen to terrible people.