An uneasy cross between After Hours and Crimes and Misdemeanors, The Details charts the moral ambiguity of its protagonist, Dr. Jeff Lang (Tobey Maguire), as he confronts a seemingly endless pile of inconveniences and moral dilemmas that threaten to upend his comfortable existence. He and wife Nealy (Elizabeth Banks) have just celebrated 10 years of marriage, and are contemplating providing their young son Max with a sibling, a life change that would necessitate a house extension not allowed under Seattle code. Not to be deterred, Jeff goes ahead and orders the renovation, seeking to bribe the silence of his cat-lady neighbor Lila (Laura Linney) with a gaudy houseplant. Meanwhile, raccoons are wreaking havoc with the Lang yard, itself a source of contention between Jeff and Nealy, whose screaming matches seem more habitual than they let on to their friends. After one such fight, Jeff has sex with his longtime friend Becca (Kerry Washington); when her husband Pete (a nicely restrained Ray Liotta) finds out, he offers Jeff the opportunity to spill the beans to Nealy or pay him $100,000 for his silence. And then Lila informs the randy doc that she’s pregnant from her own five-minute romp with him.
This sort of when-it-rains-it-pours” merry-go-round of detail and plot device might have worked better had writer-director Jacob Aaron Estes maintained more control over the ramshackle production. As it is, the plot moves in fits and spurts, complete with harried, fast-forward time elapses that are funny at first but then just seem to be an inadequate technique. There’s an important parallel plot involving Jeff’s acquaintance with Lincoln (Dennis Haysbert), a former college basketball champ down on his luck and short on time, whose life Jeff—in a grand gesture to try to absolve himself of his many failings—saves. The upshot of such generosity involves Lincoln performing a major—and criminal—favor for Jeff, a plot device that seems tailor made to let us see Jeff and Lincoln in the same light.
Despite the sketchy script and uneven direction, the acting ensemble is generally in fine form. It’s downright subversive to see the boyish Maguire play such an out-and-out prick. Washington, largely wasted, is incandescent yet sad, Banks manages to save Nealy from being a total drudge, and Haysbert somehow avoids making Lincoln into the beatific black man that Hollywood continues to deploy to prove a point completely unrelated to the narrative. Linney is more problematic—her Lila is, indeed, wacky, but also alternatingly sad and truly deranged. That Jeff would take advantage of her, let alone allow himself to become seduced by her, is sickening and skewers the movie’s attempt to be sardonic. The marauding raccoons get almost more play than the human characters, and that, too, is maddening, but not to the point that there’s any humor or redemptive grace when Jeff runs over one of the critters with his car. I get that Estes is trying to say we live in a world in which bad behavior is rewarded and nobody really pays true penance for his or her sins, but The Details doesn’t examine either problem well enough.