Sundance Review: The Details

Having won the Independent Spirit John Cassavetes Award for his debut feature Mean Creek in 2005, some may have wondered what Jacob Aaron Estes might do next, so he was one of the half dozen filmmakers at this Sundance Film Festival who had something to prove. His new movie The Details, a star-studded dark comedy couldn’t be any more different than Mean Creek and though it does have a tone that’s not easy to adjust to, the great cast makes the most of it. The Weinstein Company picked up the distribution rights at the festival.

The Details
Written and directed by Jacob Aaron Estes
Starring Tobey Maguire, Elizabeth Banks, Ray Liotta, Dennis Haysbert, Anna Friel, Laura Linney, Sam Trammell

Rating: 7/10

When a movie opens with a piano dropping on its star, you know it’s going to be dark, and for his first movie since “Mean Creek,” Jacob Aaron Estes takes a cue from the Coen Brothers in creating a movie so dark and edgy it’s hard not to laugh at times.

Tobey Maguire is Dr. Jeffrey Lang whose relationship with Nealy (Elizabeth Banks), his wife of ten years, has hit a rocky patch just as the yard he paid a lot of money to re-landscape is being terrorized by raccoons. That ends up being the least of his problems as the stress leads him into a number of very bad decisions, including sleeping with his best friend (Kerry Washington), thereby earning the wrath of her husband (Ray Liotta).

While watching “The Details,” it’s hard not to be reminded of the Coens’ “A Serious Man,” another movie that seriously tests the mettle of its lead character for the amusement of its audience. While there are plenty of precursors for this sort of dark comedy and elements of the story that don’t make Estes’ foray into the genre feel completely original, it’s balanced with an intriguing twist on the dark comedy genre that keeps it somewhat fresh.

Still looking way too young for his age to be believable as a father, Maguire shows that he really has great comic chops and timing when necessary even if it’s just a plaintive look or reaction to what he’s being subjected to. Banks certainly has done better work, although she also has the least interesting role in the cast. Even so, her arguments with Maguire are quite legendary in how fast they turn ugly regardless of how mundanely they begin.

The real scene-stealer for the movie is Laura Linney as their “wackadoodle” neighbor Lilith Wasserman–even her name is funny!–who Jeff tries to butter up so she won’t report them for adding a wing to their house without proper paperwork. In his obsession to rid his yard of raccoons, he accidentally kills her cat and gets pulled further into her craziness, and boy, does Linney seem to relish letting loose with a wave of erratic emotions that often freak us out as much as they do Maguire. Dennis Haysbert, unrecognizable with shaved head and grey beard, is quite good as Lincoln, a guy with whom Jeffrey shoots hoops who becomes his cause célèbre as he tries to earn better karma to compensate for all the bad things he’s done. Kerry Washington is suitably sexy and believable as the best friend any guy would want to sleep with while Liotta is perfectly cast as her Alpha Male husband.

While “The Detals” is still first and foremost a comedy, Estes isn’t as able to maintain a lighter tone while dark things happen to Jeffrey. When he finally breaks down and tells his wife what happened, it leads to possibly one of the funniest lines of the movie just because we’ve been there with him all along and we also need the release.

Estes has done a solid job with more money and a bigger name cast than his previous feature even if the nature of the genre gives “The Details” tonal issues that ultimately, it’s able to overcome.

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