Was anyone dying to see yet another movie preaching about how, beneath the slick surface of suburban homes, there lies an unseen malice? Yeah, me neither. "The Details" (available on VOD outlets as well as in theaters,) originally premiered at Sundance in 2011, but it feels more like an offering from Sundance 1997.
Opening with a shot that burrows beneath the torn-up sod of the main character’s dream-home - it feels more "American Beauty" than "Blue Velvet," positing this as a bad rip-off of a bad rip-off - the film ends up wasting away a crew of wonderful character actors in favor of focusing on an over-plotted script that seems to take pleasure in vilifying everyone except its white male middle class protagonist. "The Details" is focused on anything but.
And if director Jacob Aaron Estes’ shots are ripping off "Blue Velvet," his script is all about knocking off Alexander Payne. Call this "Election for Dummies." We’ve got the white-bread protagonist - Tobey Maguire as Dr. Jeff Lang - along with an introductory monologue that lays out a number of seemingly disconnected elements. We see his charming-but-sexless marriage with Elizabeth Banks, we see his menagerie of respectable friends, we see his reliable occupation, we see his favorite pornographic website, we see his slightly condescending friendship with a basketball buddy at the gym (played by Dennis Haybert and his incredible beard), and hell, we even see his kidney.
No points are scored for predicting that it all comes together to send his life to hell by the time the credits roll.
For the most part, the connections are as predictable as they are perfunctory. Maguire gets a bit antsy, having not had sex in six months, and calls up friend Kerry Washington in lieu of one of his online hookers (their sex scene, set to "Shoop," only confirms my suspicion that this film time-traveled here from the 1990s.) He’s quickly blackmailed by her husband - angry Ray Liotta, naturally - forcing Maguire to take out a mortgage (unbeknownst to Banks) and sit through an overacted moralizing monologue that severely undercuts the Liotta character’s status as a badass.
For a moment it seems like a movie depicting Tobey Maguire as the worst human being to ever walk the planet - not a terrible premise - but then it begins to take his side. He listens to Liotta’s pontifications; he begins to become a better man; he shows honest sympathy to the crazy cat lady next door played by Laura Linney (he fucks her too); he even donates his kidney to the deeply in-need Haybert.
That all these decisions come back to bite him in the ass seem to suggest that, perhaps, he should’ve remained as ruthlessly dishonest as he was in the opening scenes. So, less than a darkly comedic character study or a look beneath the shiny veneer of suburbia, "The Details" instead comes off as a film about how much it sucks having to deal with women and minorities.
It doesn’t help that, for all the visual depictions of diving ’under the surface’, this film is as sanitized as the stereotyped suburban housewife. The screaming matches feel like a middle-school performance of Eugene O’Neill. You can tell Estes was proud of himself for doing things like staging conversational scenes in a bathroom while Elizabeth Banks takes a piss. But all that proves is that he’s watched "Eyes Wide Shut" a hundred times; it doesn’t make his terrible dialogue - "What I deserve," says Maguire in a moment that grasps at introspection and comedy while achieving neither, "is for a piano to fall out of the sky and land on my head" - any more interesting.
The film finally reaches an interesting ending 80-minutes when Maguire, stranded at a ceremony intended to celebrate him, is forced to accept the fact that he’s better at being an admired shithead than he is at being a self-satisfied martyr. So of course, the film feels the need to go on another 22 minutes and really bash us in the head with its themes and smug script.
Saddest of all is a late-in-the-game sequence where Maguire comes clean: basically recounting the entire events of the film to Banks. What we see on this oft-underused actress’ face isn’t acting. It’s a woman listening to a plot and realizing, slowly but surely, that she’s in a shitty movie.