In “The Details,” Dr. Jeff Lang (Tobey Maguire) lives in a charming suburban Seattle home with his beautiful wife, Nealy (Elizabeth Banks), and their adorable, 2-year-old son. When we first see him, he’s driving home in his Toyota Prius – which has a campaign sticker for President Obama on it, naturally – with a large, lovely plant from Trader Joe’s in the backseat.
Jeff has just resodded the backyard and the place looks terrific – until one morning when he wakes up and finds that raccoons have gutted the grass overnight. Yes, these are literal raccoons but they’re also metaphorical raccoons and sometimes, when things get especially weird, they’re imaginary raccoons. They dig up transgressions in Jeff’s life and weaknesses in his character that he’d rather suppress through his breezy smugness. Such is the obviousness of the symbolism in this black comedy that explores the ugly underbelly of seemingly idyllic domestic life.
Perhaps this story from writer-director Jacob Aaron Estes, with its drugs, adultery and murder, sounds familiar to you. A lot of movies have upended the mythology of suburbia over the past decade or so, especially following the success of “American Beauty.” “The Details” doesn’t do much that’s new or particularly inspired to add insight to this collection, but it has some surprising moments and nuggets of clarity. And it does offer some uncomfortable truths about the tiny ways in which we try to get away with stuff, and how they grow, and how we convince ourselves they’re still OK.
Jeff, for example, is expanding his family’s home in defiance of local zoning laws. No biggie, no one will know. He tries to get rid of the raccoons by illegally laying out poison. Sure, killing wildlife this way is illegal, but it’s all for the greater good, right? And when an afternoon drink with his best friend from medical school (Kerry Washington) – who happens to be gorgeous and married – leads to a quick tryst in the garage … well, it was just that one time. And Jeff felt really bad about it, or so it seemed. Maguire’s boyishness masks his real emotions, for a while at least.
This is an inherently selfish person, but he’s not truly evil. He also shows some glimmers of decency, especially when it comes to his basketball buddy, Lincoln (played by an unrecognizable Dennis Haysbert), who’s struggling financially and in need of a new kidney. Relationships like that one allow “The Details” to go to more raw, personal places than the surreal, sometimes dreamlike comedy early on would suggest.
It’s a frustrating movie in its inconsistency. Laura Linney, for example, is a hoot as the nutty next-door neighbor who threatens to blackmail Jeff over an affair he’s having … by trying to launch an affair of her own with him. (Her house, crammed with eccentric clutter, must have been fun to create.) But then Banks, as Jeff’s wife, doesn’t get nearly enough to do, which makes a climactic reveal from her seem to come from nowhere.
And then there’s Ray Liotta as Washington’s husband. He initially seems like a bit of an idiotic lug, but ends up having one standout scene as the cuckolded husband who explains to Jeff in an extended monologue what it means to be a man. The straightforward way in which he cuts to the core suggests the better (and more honest) movie that might have been in here.