THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan
The Details is a dark comedy about a normal guy whose attempts to prevent a raccoon from digging up his backyard lead to his complete and total downfall. You can probably already tell that this is one of those self-consciously quirky movies about how suburban life is really hell. There have been more of these films than I can count. The title refers to a series of seemingly ordinary objects – a plant, a tray of cheese, a bottle of poison, etc. - that the main character tells us will figure prominently into his story. They are, literally, the details. From there, we spend 91 long minutes watching how these mundane things tie together and lead to Very Bad Stuff, including – say it with me here, folks – a murder.
Tobey Maguire plays Jeff, a doctor stuck in a not-entirely-happy marriage to Nealy (Elizabeth Banks). After paying a lot of money to have their backyard sodded, Jeff is dismayed to discover that a raccoon is digging it up nightly. His obsession with the yard causes further distance in the marriage. He confesses his marital woes to a psychiatrist friend (Kerry Washington) and ends up making love to her, much to the consternation of her husband (Ray Liotta). Meanwhile, Jeff's building permit for a house addition is turned down, so he decides to proceed without the proper authorization. In order to keep things quiet, he has to find a way to placate his crazy next-door neighbor, Lila (Laura Linney). She's willing to keep his secret, but her silence comes at an ever-increasing cost. Jeff's sole reliable support seems to be Lincoln (Dennis Haysbert), a down-on-his-luck man he occasionally plays basketball with at the local community center. When Jeff does Lincoln a huge favor, he thinks he's doing so out of kindness, when in reality he's sealing his own fate.
The Details was written and directed by Jacob Aaron Estes, who made a rather brilliant teen crime thriller called Mean Creek a few years back. This film is a major step down for him. There's a wealth of manufactured quirkiness going on here; every frame is dripping with it, in fact. There's also a lot of forced edginess, particularly when you consider the implications of the third-act murder. What's missing is actual comedy. Quirkiness and edginess may be in plentiful supply, but laughs are non-existent. Estes marches his characters through one bit of bad behavior after another, without ever making any of it truly comical. Devoid of laughter to supplement the blatantly immoral antics on display, The Details becomes a thoroughly unpleasant story populated by unlikeable people you don't want to spend any time with. The best suburban satires (American Beauty springs to mind) offer a sliver of identification, so that you laugh in recognition. They exaggerate things just enough to still feel real, but not too real. This one assumes incorrectly that you'll laugh simply because everyone makes a catastrophic choice at every conceivable turn.
Unfortunately, the terrific cast suffers as a result of weak source material. I like Tobey Maguire a lot, but he's badly miscast. The role of Jeff requires an actor who can make mounting desperation funny. (Jason Bateman would have killed this role.) Maguire plays the character as a guy who stands doe-eyed, watching passively as the world crumbles around him. Elizabeth Banks is usually very good in comedies, but because Nealy is underwritten, there's not much she can do besides repeatedly look at Maguire's character with frustration. Even the always-delightful Laura Linney can't make the cartoonish Lila work. She's called upon to do some kind of embarrassing things on-screen, and while she's admirably game, the weak screenplay undermines her brave efforts. The best performance comes from Ray Liotta, who gets one magnificent scene in which he tells off Maguire. It represents the only time this film comes to life.
The Details tested my patience. The longer it went on, the more eager I was for it to be over. Why do filmmakers keep wanting to tell us that suburban life is bad? Is it so wrong to want to have a nice family, live in a nice neighborhood, and have a nice lawn? Sure, you can laugh at those things, but a movie has to find something funny about them. The Details isn't funny, it's just nasty.
( out of four)
The Details is rated R for language, sexual content, some drug use and brief violence. The running time is 1 hour and 31 minutes.
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