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Review: Why 'The Details' Signifies the Decline of Suburban Dark Comedies

Photo of Eric Kohn By Eric Kohn | Indiewire October 30, 2012 at 1:3PM

It's a familiar mold: the perils of suburban discontent have been so thoroughly explored that "The Details" plays like a hodgepodge of familiar circumstances on an assembly line to disaster.
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In "The Details," Tobey Maguire plays Jeff Lang, a solemn doctor living a seemingly tranquil life in suburban Seattle with his wife Nealy (Elizabeth Banks) and their young child. It doesn't take long to puncture that fantasy: An introductory voiceover establishes that Jeff has lost interest in the restrictions of his mundane world. A string of incidents have led to catastrophe. Jeff tried to act out and instead threatened his stable existence. It's a familiar mold: the perils of suburban discontent have been so thoroughly explored that "The Details" plays like a hodgepodge of familiar circumstances on an assembly line to disaster. 
 
It takes only a handful of scenes before Jeff dials up an old friend (Kerry Washington) to moan about his desire for infidelity and winds up sleeping with her. He then must deal with the advances of his creepy neighbor (Laura Linney), an older single woman whose bizarre advances attract Jeff simply because they break from the normality of his usual surroundings. Eccentric flourishes abound: Raccoons assault Jeff's yard at night and haunt his dreams. He forms a curious bond with gym pal Lincoln (Dennis Haysbert), an older black man whom Jeff attempts to assist by first helping him land a job and then donating his kidney. Eventually all of these incidents merge into a perfect storm of overlapping incidents, but writer-director Jacob Aaron Estes ("Mean Creek") establishes the imminent chaos from so early on that you can practically see his hand sketching out the maze of interconnected subplots. The setup and the punchline are indistinguishable. 
 
The poster for "The Details" contains the amusing image of an upside down piano hurling toward Maguire's head, an event that actually takes place  during one of the more outlandish fantasy moments. That's the most gratuitous moment of symbolic overstatement, but far from the only one. Estes relishes the opportunity to let Jeff repeatedly screw himself over with a sloppy approach that amplifies the filmmaker's intentions of assailing the American dream. It's a myth, in case you didn't realize, but the chances are strong that you have -- in large part thanks to better movies that have already delivered the message. 
 
In the fifties, Douglas Sirk melodramas initially teased out the prospects of suburbia's repressive forces. In the final year of the 20th century, roughly 50 years after the post-war notion of upper middle class contentment took hold, both "American Beauty" and "Election" poked holes in the idea of little houses on the hillside offering eternal comfort. We have exorcised these demons so many times that "The Details" practically seems more like remake than pastiche. In a sense it is: Estes' script suggests "Revolutionary Road" by way of the Coen brothers, an unseemly combo that has no foothold in an era when cynical movies about American everymen have already solidified into a well-worn tradition. The dark underbelly of the American dream is awfully played out. 
 
A cursory glance at "The Details" may obscure its failings. Maguire's sullen gaze and Linney's ultra-looney delivery hold some interest for the level of cartoonish surreality they bring to the plot's downward spiral, but for the most part "The Details" struggles to imbue the proceedings with purpose or even allow the bizarre comedic eccentricities to win out. The soundtrack, a ghoulish mixture of haunting orchestral compositions by tomandandy (the duo responsible for scores ranging from "The Rules of Attraction" to "Resident Evil: Afterlife"), frequently transcends the material by making it appear as though "The Details" were heading toward a greater epiphany about the sheltered world it deconstructs beyond the assertions of the opening scenes. That assumption has as much permanence as the domesticity the movie takes in its crosshairs. 
 
Criticwire grade: D+
 
HOW WILL IT PLAY? The Weinstein Company's RADiUS-TWC label opened "The Details" on VOD a few weeks ago ahead of its theatrical release this Friday. The movie should perform well in ancillary markets due to the appeal of its stars but may struggle in limited release as the result of mixed reviews and difficult timing. 
In "The Details," Tobey Maguire plays Jeff Lang, a solemn doctor living a seemingly tranquil life in suburban Seattle with his wife Nealy (Elizabeth Banks) and their young child. It doesn't take long to puncture that fantasy: An introductory voiceover establishes that Jeff has lost interest in the restrictions of his mundane world. A string of incidents have led to catastrophe. Jeff tried to act out and instead threatened his stable existence. It's a familiar mold: the perils of suburban discontent have been so thoroughly explored that "The Details" plays like a hodgepodge of familiar circumstances on an assembly line to disaster. 
 
It takes only a handful of scenes before Jeff dials up an old friend (Kerry Washington) to moan about his desire for infidelity and winds up sleeping with her. He then must deal with the advances of his creepy neighbor (Laura Linney), an older single woman whose bizarre advances attract Jeff simply because they break from the normality of his usual surroundings. Eccentric flourishes abound: Raccoons assault Jeff's yard at night and haunt his dreams. He forms a curious bond with gym pal Lincoln (Dennis Haysbert), an older black man whom Jeff attempts to assist by first helping him land a job and then donating his kidney. Eventually all of these incidents merge into a perfect storm of overlapping incidents, but writer-director Jacob Aaron Estes ("Mean Creek") establishes the imminent chaos from so early on that you can practically see his hand sketching out the maze of interconnected subplots. The setup and the punchline are indistinguishable. 
 
The poster for "The Details" contains the amusing image of an upside down piano hurling toward Maguire's head, an event that actually takes place  during one of the more outlandish fantasy moments. That's the most gratuitous moment of symbolic overstatement, but far from the only one. Estes relishes the opportunity to let Jeff repeatedly screw himself over with a sloppy approach that amplifies the filmmaker's intentions of assailing the American dream. It's a myth, in case you didn't realize, but the chances are strong that you have -- in large part thanks to better movies that have already delivered the message. 
 
In the fifties, Douglas Sirk melodramas initially teased out the prospects of suburbia's repressive forces. In the final year of the 20th century, roughly 50 years after the post-war notion of upper middle class contentment took hold, both "American Beauty" and "Election" poked holes in the idea of little houses on the hillside offering eternal comfort. We have exorcised these demons so many times that "The Details" practically seems more like remake than pastiche. In a sense it is: Estes' script suggests "Revolutionary Road" by way of the Coen brothers, an unseemly combo that has no foothold in an era when cynical movies about American everymen have already solidified into a well-worn tradition. The dark underbelly of the American dream is awfully played out. 
 
A cursory glance at "The Details" may obscure its failings. Maguire's sullen gaze and Linney's ultra-looney delivery hold some interest for the level of cartoonish surreality they bring to the plot's downward spiral, but for the most part "The Details" struggles to imbue the proceedings with purpose or even allow the bizarre comedic eccentricities to win out. The soundtrack, a ghoulish mixture of haunting orchestral compositions by tomandandy (the duo responsible for scores ranging from "The Rules of Attraction" to "Resident Evil: Afterlife"), frequently transcends the material by making it appear as though "The Details" were heading toward a greater epiphany about the sheltered world it deconstructs beyond the assertions of the opening scenes. That assumption has as much permanence as the domesticity the movie takes in its crosshairs. 
 
Criticwire grade: D+
 
HOW WILL IT PLAY? The Weinstein Company's RADiUS-TWC label opened "The Details" on VOD a few weeks ago ahead of its theatrical release this Friday. The movie should perform well in ancillary markets due to the appeal of its stars but may struggle in limited release as the result of mixed reviews and difficult timing. 
Elizabeth Banks and Tobey Maguire in "The Details."

In "The Details," Tobey Maguire plays Jeff Lang, a solemn doctor living a seemingly tranquil life in suburban Seattle with his wife Nealy (Elizabeth Banks) and their young child. It doesn't take long to puncture that fantasy: An introductory voiceover establishes that Jeff has lost interest in the restrictions of his mundane world. A string of incidents have led to catastrophe. Jeff tried to act out and instead threatened his stable existence. It's a familiar mold: the perils of suburban discontent have been so thoroughly explored that "The Details" plays like a hodgepodge of familiar circumstances on an assembly line to disaster.

It takes only a handful of scenes before Jeff dials up an old friend (Kerry Washington) to moan about his desire for infidelity and winds up sleeping with her. He then must deal with the advances of his creepy neighbor (Laura Linney), an older single woman whose bizarre advances attract Jeff simply because they break from the normality of his usual surroundings. Eccentric flourishes abound: Raccoons assault Jeff's yard at night and haunt his dreams. He forms a curious bond with gym pal Lincoln (Dennis Haysbert), an older black man whom Jeff attempts to assist by first helping him land a job and then donating his kidney. Eventually all of these incidents merge into a perfect storm of overlapping incidents, but writer-director Jacob Aaron Estes ("Mean Creek") establishes the imminent chaos from so early on that you can practically see his hand sketching out the maze of interconnected subplots. The setup and the punchline are indistinguishable.

The poster for "The Details" contains the amusing image of an upside down piano hurling toward Maguire's head, an event that actually takes place during one of the more outlandish fantasy moments. That's the most gratuitous moment of symbolic overstatement, but far from the only one. Estes relishes the opportunity to let Jeff repeatedly screw himself over with a sloppy approach that amplifies the filmmaker's intentions of assailing the American dream. It's a myth, in case you didn't realize, but the chances are strong that you have -- in large part thanks to better movies that have already delivered the message.

In the fifties, Douglas Sirk melodramas initially teased out the prospects of suburbia's repressive forces. In the final year of the 20th century, roughly 50 years after the post-war notion of upper middle class contentment took hold, both "American Beauty" and "Election" poked holes in the idea of little houses on the hillside offering eternal comfort. We have exorcised these demons so many times that "The Details" practically seems more like remake than pastiche. In a sense it is: Estes' script suggests "Revolutionary Road" by way of the Coen brothers, an unseemly combo that has no foothold in an era when cynical movies about American everymen have already solidified into a well-worn tradition. The dark underbelly of the American dream is awfully played out.

A cursory glance at "The Details" may obscure its failings. Maguire's sullen gaze and Linney's ultra-looney delivery hold some interest for the level of cartoonish surreality they bring to the plot's downward spiral, but for the most part "The Details" struggles to imbue the proceedings with purpose or even allow the bizarre comedic eccentricities to win out. The soundtrack, a ghoulish mixture of haunting orchestral compositions by tomandandy (the duo responsible for scores ranging from "The Rules of Attraction" to "Resident Evil: Afterlife"), frequently transcends the material by making it appear as though "The Details" were heading toward a greater epiphany about the sheltered world it deconstructs beyond the assertions of the opening scenes. That assumption has as much permanence as the domesticity the movie takes in its crosshairs.

Criticwire grade: D+

HOW WILL IT PLAY? The Weinstein Company's RADiUS-TWC label opened "The Details" on VOD a few weeks ago ahead of its theatrical release this Friday. The movie should perform well in ancillary markets due to the appeal of its stars but may struggle in limited release as the result of mixed reviews and difficult timing.
 

This article is related to: Reviews, Tobey Maguire, Elizabeth Banks