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’s 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.
For all of our coverage of the 2011 Sundance Film Festival, click here. Also, here are links to all of my Sundance reviews so far:
- Bobby Fischer Against the World
- Corman’s World: Exploits of a Hollywood Rebel
- Higher Ground
- The Interrupters
- Like Crazy
- Magic Trip
- The Music Never Stopped
- My Idiot Brother
- Page One: A Year Inside the New York Times
- Project Nim
- Red State
- These Amazing Shadows
- Win Win