The Details (**)

3

I enjoy a black comedy as much as anyone, but I do require that there be a point to things. That’s an area where the well acted but hollow film ‘The Details’ utterly fails in regard to. Its tone is all over the place and never really figures out what it wants to be doing. The cast is mostly effective but writer/director Jacob Aaron Estes doesn’t quite know what to do with his material. It’s frustrating to watch because individual moments work pretty well, but the movie itself is a real mess. Tobey Maguire gives a lead performance far different than you’d normally expect from him, while Laura Linney has a scene stealing supporting role that’s pretty enjoyable, but neither is able to save this confused little film. Estes wants you to laugh at the misery that his main character is suffering through, but he never really gives you anything funny to actually cause the laughter. It’s quirky and uncomfortable, but never really funny, which is what sabotages the flick. I didn’t completely hate the film, but when such a big part doesn’t work for me, I can’t really embrace it at all. ‘The Details’ opens early next month, but I wouldn’t wait for it with baited breath. It’s just not worth that sort of effort.

The plot concerns how the little things all add up to royally screw over the main character. For Dr. Jeff Lang (Maguire), it all starts when he decides to fix up his yard. He and his wife Neely (Elizabeth Banks) are looking to do some home improvement, and putting sod down in the backyard is step one. The thing is, the sod has worms in it, and the worms bring out raccoons that ruin the yard. Jeff slowly becomes obsessed with getting rid of the pests, but it always seems to wind up getting him into a chain reaction that causes some sort of funny business, mainly involving his wacky next door neighbor Lila (Linney). He also gets involved inappropriately with his best friend Rebecca (Kerry Washington), which leads to dealings with her intense husband Peter (Ray Liotta). Jeff winds up doing some terrible things, but at the same time he’s also going out of his way to be kind to and help an acquaintance he plays basketball with named Lincoln (Dennis Haysbert). How this all ties together I’ll leave to the few of you who wind up seeing the flick to find out, but suffice to say there’s sex, drugs, and yes, even murder afoot. It’s plenty dark, and often awkward, but it’s rarely funny.

I will say that the actors do their best to keep you interested in the silly story. Tobey Maguire isn’t quite reaching the heights he achieved with ‘Brothers’ a few years back, but this is one of his better performances to be sure. He’s doing something sort of similar to what Michael Stuhlbarg did in ‘A Serious Man’, only in an inferior product. Maguire isn’t the problem with this film though, that’s for sure. Nearly matching him is the always excellent Laura Linney, who gets to let her hair down and play a looney character for a change. Linney is obviously relishing this opportunity and really makes the most of it. Her scenes are often the most enjoyable, even if they’re more weird than funny. Ray Liotta is more or less playing his normal character, but he does get a bit of a different spin to put on his performance. Elizabeth Banks is mostly wasted, which is a shame, especially considering that the movie probably could have used more of her character anyway. The same goes for Kerry Washington. Dennis Haysbert is the moral center of the flick, and he’s not bad at all, but his subplot feels like more of a plot device than an organic part of the story. The rest of the cast includes the likes of Sam Trammell, Marlette Buchanan, and Shanga Parker in tiny parts, but Maguire and Linney are the ones to really pay attention to.

Writer/director Jacob Aaron Estes is really changing gears here from his last film ‘Mean Creek’, and to be honest…I liked it when he was more serious. It’s clear that his script is going for a dark comedic vibe, and his direction supports that, but it just never comes out on the screen. His direction is colorful and decently paced, but he had no handle on the tone. Yes, he directs actors well, but he didn’t direct his own screenplay that well. As a director here he’s mostly acceptable, but as a writer he’s flawed beyond repair. He doesn’t seem to realize that oddity and quirk with a dark tinge doesn’t automatically become funny, you need the right touch, and Estes does not have that touch. It’s a shame because he’s a talented filmmaker, but here he’s just sort of screwed from the start. Things might have been somewhat saved if he developed his characters well, but he doesn’t and any success there is through the actors, not Estes. Hopefully he’ll correct that next time out…

‘The Details’ could have been a very fun black comedy if there was any comedy in the film at all. As it is, we’re stuck with a dark character study that never really delves into the character enough to make us care about what happens. When the movie opens in November it’ll just be one more option that you can safely skip, unless you love someone in the cast. For me, this was just a missed opportunity and a chore to sit through.

Thoughts? Discuss in the comments!