[This a re-post of my review from the 2011 Sundance Film Festival. The Details opens today in limited release.]
The Details is a darkly comic tale that can never quite seem to get a handle on its tone. The film plays with notions of fate but only a fate that will deal out punishment and retribution no matter how much good you do or if you even receive a kindness. That’s not a problem for a black comedy, but The Details grinds to a halt as its main character receives valuable life lessons or as he heads into another predictable comic set-up. Director Jacob Aaron Estes’ best attempt to tie it all together is with an insufferable Danny Elfman-esque score. Stars Tobey Maguire and Laura Linney do a great job handling the comedy, but even their scenes eventually feel repetitive. The Details has a lot to offer, most notably frustration.
Estes opens the movie on a promising note by using a gag that would do Chuck Jones proud. The story follows Jeff Lang (Maguire), a mild-mannered suburbanite who’s unhappy in his marriage and with the raccoons who are messing up his newly-sodded backyard. He’s also trying to expand his house but has been denied a permit from the city. He decides to do it anyway and attempts to win over his crazy-cat-lady neighbor Lila (Laura Linney) with a houseplant that she takes as more than a token gift designed to stop her from reporting his housing violation. But from this minor attempt to skirt the law and coerce a neighbor, Jeff’s small series of deceptions begin to spiral out of control as his fate continually comes around to kick his ass.
Jeff is a skeevy little scumbag and Maguire’s amiable looks and passive demeanor makes for a great juxtaposition with the character’s reprehensible actions. He also plays wonderfully off Linney’s crazy-pants character. Linney goes right up to the line of making Lila a farce but she always pulls it back with the sadness, anger, and even a sweet naivety that keeps the character feeling real.
The problem is that Maguire, Linney, and all of the characters are operating in a shifting world that is broad and cartoony but then wants to come around and hit an emotional beat than seems forced when crammed inside tired comic set-ups. We all know what’s going to happen when we’ve seen that Lila has a cat and Jeff puts out a can of poisoned tuna to kill the raccoons. The film then takes ten minutes to reach the inevitable conflict that arises from the set-up, but then it wants to change gears and have Jeff quit being Elmer Fudd and transform into a real human being who is forced to grapple with his lack of a moral center.
I admire that The Details wants to set up an exploration of karmic retribution within the confines of a dark comedy, but it’s always off-balance. When you have Jeff’s angry friend (Ray Liotta) grind the film to a halt to lecture him about taking responsibility for his immoral actions, it comes off preachy in a movie that’s also trying to embrace irreverent humor. The balance of serious drama and wacky comedy is possible, but Estes has serious difficultly pulling it off. The result is a film that offers some big laughs, great comic performances, but never hits its stride.