by George Sax
Blame it on the raccoons. At the least, theirs is a crucial contribution to Jeff Lang’s expanding complex of personal problems and escalating crises. Jeff (Tobey Maguire) doesn’t need Ludwig Mies van der Rohe to tell him about the infernal influence of details on the disposition of human dreams and schemes.
Jeff’s woeful tale, told partly by him in voiceover, is the ostensible subject of Jacob Aaron Estes’ dryly wry, cheerfully waspish and witty movie. Jeff, a boyish, thirtyish obstetrician in Seattle, looks back to his “downfall.” It began “on a fairy-tale-like day,” he sadly recalls. It commenced with two or three small-dimensioned, seemingly harmless decisions, the kind privileged young Pacific Northwest moderns like Jeff and wife Neely (Elizabeth Banks) take all too easily. Like deciding to add a room to their home to accommodate a contemplated little addition to their family. And like ignoring the Seattle building code and variance provisions cause, like, who’s going to bother nailing them for this? (Actually, this is mostly Jeff’s idea.) Jeff and Nealy’s somewhat casually self-interested indifference toward little ethical issues builds that list of his misfortunes to an eventual darkly comic fever pitch, although the movie’s laidback Northwest-Starbucks’ cool avoids almost all possible hyped-up tonal notes.
Those raccoons? They’ve been digging up Jeff’s expensively sodded lawn and driving him kind of mad. (We may sense some kind of displacement here.) He’s undertaken a full-bore campaign against the critters, reminiscent of Bill Murray’s anti-gopher campaign in Caddyshack. The raccoon war and his little building project lead to embroilment with his “wackadoodle” neighbor Lila (Laura Linney, convincingly weird), that would be tragic in a less comically intended movie.
But elsewhere, Jeff’s better angel leads him into an intimate involvement with Lincoln (Dennis Haybert), a middle-aged guy he knows from pickup basketball at a school gym. “Linc” is the closest thing to a noble character in The Details, until Jeff’s apparently honest attempt to make a genuine sacrifice on his behalf leads the grateful guy to an unthinkable decision. Estes really drives hard against comedic limits here.
Maguire, who’s in virtually every scene and so must give the picture a lot of its shape and tone, has a mostly deadpan, low adrenaline affect that often works well enough, until it doesn’t. Sometimes, he doesn’t really seem to be connecting to the movie’s outrageousness. Estes mostly skims over the surface of his material and only Haybert and Ray Liotta, as a furiously wronged husband, seem to engage with the underlying gravity of the situations.
The Details is a little like an arch version of Woody Allen’s somber, self-serious Crimes and Misdemeanors, but here and there, especially near the end, Estes evinces a more thoughtful sensibility. He seems to have had in mind a hip little parable about the heedless, almost innocently consumerist mindsets of the American petite bourgeois, and perhaps just a glance toward the universe’s indifference to life’s unfairness. (The raccoons, of course, are also indifferent.) His invention begins to wear thin as it goes along, but his efforts are by no means uninteresting or without rewards.
Watch the trailer for The Details
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