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‘The Details’ is an overstuffed, but never dull, suburban satire

‘The Details’ is an overstuffed, but never dull, suburban satire

The Details

Directed by Jacob Aaron Estes

Written by Jacob Aaron Estes

USA, 2011

Tobey Maguire exists in a kind of netherworld as a performer. When he played Peter Parker in the original Spider-Man trilogy, he was often criticized for looking too old to play a high school senior or, later, a college freshman. (This, despite the fact that Maguire displayed the right mix of goofiness and angst as Peter and his masked alter ego, more so than Andrew Garfield.) However, though he may look too old to play 20, he’s not yet fully believable as a husband and father, a family man rent asunder by his own dark temptations. Thus, as the foundation of The Details, a twisted new suburban satire, Maguire’s not fully able to sell the adult struggles his lead character goes through.

Maguire is Jeffrey Lang, a Seattle doctor in a stagnating marriage with Nealy (Elizabeth Banks). He’s thrown himself into a home renovation project, despite it being against city regulations, a pesky pet-loving neighbor (Laura Linney) bothering him at every turn and blackmailing him so she won’t tell anyone about the home improvement, and a raccoon ripping up his backyard. As Jeffrey tries to perfect his home life, he destroys his personal life by getting romantically involved with an old friend (Kerry Washington) and running afoul of her violent husband (Ray Liotta). Add to that his genuine concern for the health of a basketball-playing buddy colliding with these more pressing issues (Dennis Haysbert), and Jeffrey’s on the knife’s edge of destruction.

The Details is many things, but it’s never boring. It deliberately references American Beauty at one point; though that movie’s luster has worn off, it’s far more cohesive and focused. The Details mostly suffers for spreading itself too thin. Writer/director Jacob Aaron Estes could make a lot of good movies out of the plots he creates here, depending on how well he executed the concepts. The story of the friendship between Jeffrey and Lincoln, Haysbert’s well-meaning character, and how it spirals out of control due to Jeffrey’s dalliance is enough of a through-line for a dark comedy. However, instead of Jeffrey having one extramarital affair, Estes has him hook up with two women. Both have repercussions; the first is with Washington’s character, leading to the face-off with her righteously angry and spurned husband, while the second is with Linney’s character, which is followed by extremely life-threatening issues. For a 100-minute movie, The Details isn’t light on conflict; it’s positively overstuffed with it.

And while the ensemble cast has some bright spots, Maguire is either too internal in his acting choices or, in a few unique moments, too outsized, too outrageous. What’s more, because Maguire still seems stuck at age 26, more than a bit of the boyish nature in his face, his character being so irresistible to every woman in The Details is kind of unintentionally funny. Banks is fine as Nealy, but until the third act, she’s something of a non-entity. Considering how important Nealy and Jeffrey’s marriage is to the plot, the way Estes actively avoids expanding her as a character is disappointing, especially since Banks is so charming and bubbly as an actress, and delivers as capable a performance as she can.

The most memorable work, though, comes from Linney and Haysbert. Linney doesn’t often get a chance to let her hair down as an actress, but as Lila, Jeffrey’s nosy neighbor, she’s given free rein to go far over the top. Lila is a mix of a lot of different archetypes, from the busybody to the hippie to the sex-starved older woman. Estes’ script never figures out how to blend those stereotypes, to mesh those ideas, but Linney rips into the role with a voracious fervor she hasn’t displayed in years. Haysbert, on the other hand, is more low-key and soulful as Lincoln, a decent, goodhearted individual. Estes, near the end, fails to make Lincoln’s choices and consequences that logical, but Haysbert does a fine job displaying the mental frustration wracking his character’s mind.

The Details, like another recent independent comedy, The Oranges, wants to follow in the steps of other pitch-black satires skewering the nuclear-family lifestyle. Though it’s got a host of flaws, The Details is better than The Oranges not because its story is completely unexpected and unfamiliar, but by always making its audience pay attention. In all honesty, many of the storylines here have been done before, and better. Still, the way Jacob Aaron Estes pulls off some of the subplots, thanks to his overtalented cast, makes The Details more lively and less tired than other satires of the genre that are jockeying for position.

— Josh Spiegel