The details in The Details are all laid out at the beginning—a houseplant, a stash of Ambien pills, a bottle of poison, a kidney, et al.—and taken together, they’re the totems of fate and circumstance that bind Jacob Aaron Estes’ moral comedy. The audience will find out where these breadcrumbs lead, but it’s an early indication of the film’s main problem: It’s more interested in admiring its own architecture than building something worth residing in. Estes’ premise of a reasonable guy who suffers terrible consequences from decisions born of weakness or necessity is a good one, and he has, in Tobey Maguire, an actor who knows from Spider-Man how to play a reluctant man of action. But being clever seems to be The Details’ primary agenda, and it’s limiting. Or, to quote Tyler Durden in Fight Club, “How’s that working out for you?”
Mired in an inertia-driven marriage with a wife (Elizabeth Banks) who hasn’t touched him in months, Maguire dutifully performs the roles of husband and father, but a home-improvement project, intended to make space for a second child, leads to grave complications. Without official approval for his expansion, Maguire has to convince the crazy cat woman next door, played by Laura Linney, not to cause trouble. Meanwhile, raccoons are tearing up his back yard, forcing him to take the extreme measure of soaking a can of tuna in poison. Cats enjoy tuna, which causes one kind of trouble. Another kind comes from the temptation of Maguire’s married friend (Kerry Washington), and still another arises from his attempt to be generous to a basketball buddy (Dennis Haysbert) with a bum kidney.
Estes stays close to Maguire as he makes choices that aren’t outrageous at any one juncture, but add up to a terrible mess once fate plays its hand—in that sense, The Details plays like a toothless suburban variation on Martin Scorsese’s After Hours. Maguire’s sins and their consequences don’t give the film any moral weight; it’s just a pile of incident, cleverly arranged but ineffectually delivered. The lone standout is Linney’s performance as the deranged neighbor, whose erratic combination of sexual desperation and extreme vulnerability keeps the film on life support. Not since Al Pacino in Jack And Jill has an actor risked so much embarrassment in the name of comedy. That’s what professionals do.