Jacob Aaron Estes’ “The Details” has no idea what tone it wants to establish. Billed as “darkly comic,” the movie attempts to strike that distinctly Coen Brothers-esque balance between farcical humor and over-the-top violence. But Estes is nowhere near as artistically gifted and confident as the Coens and, by not committing exclusively to either style, the writer/director settles for a product that is both unfunny and unsurprising.
Tobey Maguire plays Jeff Lang, a gynecologist who becomes entangled in infidelity, murder, and financial ruin after the new sod in his backyard begins to attract raccoons. The titular “details” are the little occurrences that lead to the extraordinary situations that envelop Jeff, all of which are obliquely hinted at in the first five minutes of the movie. The raccoons eat the sod, Jeff then puts out poison for them, which kills the cat belonging to his neighbor Lila (Laura Linney), who seduces Jeff and then becomes pregnant by him, leading to… I won’t spoil any more, but the movie only gets crazier as it progresses. Filmmaker Estes seeks to portray the world as zany and absurd, the kind of place in which small incidents can lead to harshly outrageous consequences. But what he’s trying to say beyond this characterization is unclear in a film that is thoroughly non-committal on how the audience is supposed to feel about the wicked serendipities that lead its protagonist to near-total destitution.
In spite of the openly ludicrous nature of the material, Estes injects several stone-cold serious scenes throughout, making for an awkward viewing experience rather than the dramatically enhanced one that the filmmaker intended. It’s hard not to scratch one’s head when Estes transitions from a comical treatment of Jeff’s obsession with his backyard into a sober depiction of his resulting marital problems with wife Nealy (Elizabeth Banks). The movie’s tone can even shift within a single sequence, like when Lila discovers her tragical dead cat, only for Estes to poke fun of her as she exaggeratedly wails in grief.
Perhaps the missteps of the screenplay would have been less of a deal-breaker had they not been amplified by the performances of the wildly miscast ensemble, particularly Maguire. Forced to deviate from the boyish earnestness he became known for in “The Cider House Rules” and the “Spider-Man” trilogy, Maguire struggles to find an angle for his conflicted anti-hero. The only scene in which the actor exhibits any sort of palpable emotion is when his character passionately argues with his wife over the importance of his backyard sod; by contrast, he gives the audience nothing to work with when he is supposed to be sincerely contrite over his responsibility for a very serious murder (and not of the aforementioned feline). Equally cold and one-note is Linney, who plays the kooky neighbor by bugging her eyes out, shouting at the top of her lungs, and cackling like a hyena, obliterating her reputation for subtle and nuanced performances.
Whatever potentially workable elements exist in “The Details”–i.e. riffing on people’s obsessions with their backyards/households, the underlying tension in Jeff and Nealy’s marriage, etc.–are overshadowed by the film’s many shortcomings. This is a thoroughly lazy, ill-considered attempt to mash together disparate tones in an effort to achieve the sort of ironic quirkiness that seems to be required for entry to Sundance. It’s as if Estes thought that disarming juxtapositions between farce and drama were all he needed to make a successful black comedy. I asked for a piña colada, Estes, not a pineapple and some rum.
“The Details” is now playing in select theaters and on Video On Demand.