Sundance film review: "The Details"

Wed Jan 26, 2011 4:20pm EST

Director Jacob Aaron Estes (C) arrives with cast members (L-R) Ray Liotta, Dennis Haysbert, Kerry Washington and Tobey Maguire for the premiere of the film ''The Details'' during the Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah January 24, 2011. REUTERS/Lucas Jackson

Director Jacob Aaron Estes (C) arrives with cast members (L-R) Ray Liotta, Dennis Haysbert, Kerry Washington and Tobey Maguire for the premiere of the film ''The Details'' during the Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah January 24, 2011.

Credit: Reuters/Lucas Jackson

PARK CITY, Utah (Hollywood Reporter) - If the devil is in "The Details," it's human bumbling that invites him in. Dr. Jeff Lang (Tobey Maguire) and is wife Nealy (Elizabeth Banks) live a comfortable middle-class life in Seattle, USA, but a chain reaction of thoughtless actions turns what starts out as a romantic comedy into something much darker and richer. Writer-director Jacob Aaron Estes' real accomplishment is successfully moving the tone of the movie from broad comedy to some serious business. "The Details" was picked up at Sundance by the Weinsteins, who should be able to use the picture's star power and savvy marketing to make it a date night conversation piece.

The film starts innocently enough with raccoons invading the Lang's newly sodded suburban backyard. Jeff tries everything—bells, traps, poison. It's the poison that gets him in trouble when crazy neighbor Lila's cat takes a bite. Laura Linney delivers a great comic performance as the unhinged, flamboyantly over-the-top neighbor, a cross between Auntie Mame and Mrs. Robinson. Of course, she's lonely and when she unzips Jeff's fly to console her for her loss, he does nothing to stop her as she clutches his face with her fingers. Things really get sticky when she announces her pregnancy and intention to keep the baby.

Jeff is already in hot water from sleeping with his best friend's (Ray Liotta) wife (Kerry Washington). In a clever and telling bit, after the deed he sits in his Prius and programs the GPS to take him to hell. "Searching for hell," it tells him. He knows he's done something wrong but doesn't have a moral compass to tell him how to get out of it.

Jeff is kind of a blank slate, which Maguire captures well with his shy smile and unassuming manner. It's not that he's a bad guy, it's more like he is a man-boy who doesn't understand the consequences off his actions. He's weak-willed, so he allows things to just happen to him.

But he is not incapable of doing a good deed and donates a kidney to his basketball buddy Lincoln (Dennis Haysbert). In the end, though, his chain of missteps catches up with him big time and he must come clean to his wife. All of it—the cheating in medical school, the infidelity, and complicity in a serious crime. He feels bad, very bad, but as usual, he doesn't know what to do about it. Nealy has to make a moral decision for him, and when she says go home, it looks like they will live happily ever after; it's a Crimes and Misdemeanors moment. In a quick coda, we see they have solved the raccoon problem, planted a garden of flowers, and Nealy has become pregnant with her second child.

But in an interesting choice, Estes has already shown us in the film's opening scene that Jeff doesn't get away with it. It would have been a totally different film if the audience didn't know what was coming. In any case, Estes seems to have some kind of divine plan, and whether the piano that falls from the sky and crushes Jeff comes from heaven or hell, the director apparently believes you get what you deserve in the end.

In terms of the production, Estes has paid great attention to the details. Sharon Meir's cinematography captures the ordinariness of daily life and production designer Toby Corbett has created a place for these people to live that reflects their personality—bland for the Langs and over-baked for Lila. There are, however, some beats missing in Estes' script and some plausibility issues. The real story takes a bit too long to settle in, but for the most part Estes is able to skillfully maneuver the film from rom-com territory to the land of moral ambiguity where most of us live.

(Editing by Zorianna Kit)

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