By Cory Everett | @modage February 3, 2011 at 4:15AM
“The Details” is one of those dark comedies where everything that can go wrong does. The sophomore film from Jacob Aaron Estes, whose previous film “Mean Creek” won the John Cassavetes Award at Sundance in 2004, was the biggest sale of this year's festival being bought by The Weinstein Company for $8 million. Of the dozen movies this writer saw while he was at the fest, it was one of the more accessible, but didn’t exactly ring of “Little Miss Sunshine”-like success either. The film stars Tobey Maguire and Elizabeth Banks as Jeff and Nealy Lang, young parents who have hit a rough patch in their marriage. Jeff is a doctor, Nealy is an interior decorator and while it’s probably neither’s fault, the passion has clearly gone out of their relationship, the image of the happy suburban couple is immediately shattered by a screaming match between the couple during the opening credits.
However Jeff’s real problems begin when he tries to rid himself of some raccoons that are tearing up his yard. He starts small, with alert chimes, then traps, then poison, but nothing seems to work. As he becomes obsessed with ridding himself of the raccoons, he is led into a chain of events that includes multiple infidelities, extortion and a murder. The title is allegedly a reference to the old maxim that “the devil is in the details.” Jeff puts his energy into appearing to be a happily married man by focusing on the little things like having a perfect yard and building a new addition to his house, meanwhile his marriage is falling apart. Maguire is an actor whose best roles have alternated between mild-mannered creepiness (“Wonder Boys”) and fits of rage (“Brothers”), and in this film he gets to play both, and shifts between the two effortlessly-- exploding during a few key scenes but quickly putting himself back together. Just the exasperated look on Maguire's face was often the funniest way to punctuate a scene.
The opening of the film features a Looney Tunes-style gag leaving a major character dead before the film jumps back in time to show how they ended up there. There is also a narrator during this section who never returns again in the film and the music, indebted heavily to Danny Elfman, comes on way too heavy here, playing every note of Maguire looking for the raccoons like Elmer Fudd hunting Bugs Bunny. (This writer wouldn’t be surprised if this piece of the score was toned down or cut before the film’s actual release.) Despite these early stumbles, the film mostly finds its footing and becomes an enjoyable comic enterprise.
One of the joys of "The Details" is watching the surprising way in which the story unfolds, as Maguire's character digs himself deeper into moral peril, so it's hard to describe too much of what follows without ruining the film. While one can imagine the trailer giving away many of the film's best moments just to put a few more butts in seats, those moments won't be spoiled here. What can be pointed out is the excellent ensemble cast -- Ray Liotta and Kerry Washington both do solid supporting work as married friends of the couple, and Dennis Haysbert, nearly unrecognizable from his days on “24”, also does good work as a friend of Jeff’s. Elizabeth Banks is very good too, but not given nearly the equal screen time with her partner. With only a few scenes to really show what she can do, she makes the most of them, showing she's more than just a skilled comic actress. However the MVP of the film undoubtedly is Laura Linney, who is a riot as neighbor and crazy-cat-lady Lilith Wasserman. Even if “crazy cat lady” seems a limited role, Linney does wonders with it, stealing every scene.
There is a confrontation between Maguire and Banks at the climax of the film that is more emotionally charged than one would expect from a film that has kept its tone so light throughout most of its running time. In another scene Ray Liotta’s character gives a speech about right and wrong, basically being saddled with spelling out exactly what the film is about. Described as an “existential horror film,” “The Details” can’t quite reach the same level of excellence as The Coen Brothers' recent “A Serious Man,” another film about a man being punished (or rewarded) by fate based on his actions. Though this film makes a great argument against cheating, these tonal inconsistencies keep it from being in the same league as some of the dark comedies it emulates. [C+]