What upper-middle class suburbanite wouldnt be apoplectic to find his newly sodded front lawn torn up by raccoons? In The Details, Jacob Aaron Estess surreal moral fable cloaked as a romantic comedy, getting rid of those pesky creatures becomes the obsession of Jeff Lang (Tobey Maguire), a smug, mild-mannered Seattle physician accustomed to getting his way.
These hollow-eyed scavengers so haunt his imagination that even when theyre not present, he glimpses them out of the corner of his eye. As the story darkens, the animals become synonymous with a gnawing guilt and fear that Jeff cant shake. In one nightmare vision, glowering raccoons overrun his bathroom and bedroom.
Jeffs once passionate marriage to Nealy (Elizabeth Banks), with whom he has a son, has settled into a sexless, humdrum routine punctuated by fights in which they both scream at the same time. Besides laying traps to kill the invading critters, his distractions include flirting with prostitutes online and planning an addition to his house that flouts the building code.
As Jeff blithely misbehaves, he is portrayed as a prototypical American Everyman in a society where it is OK, perhaps even expected, for the well-heeled to bend the rules to suit their convenience and, as penance, to pay a little extra. When meeting resistance, instead of backing down, they just reach into their wallets.
Jeff is not without self-awareness. Late in the movie, he confesses to Nealy that he cheated his way through medical school. If Jeff, with his boyish, wide-eyed stare and blank expression, personifies a spoiled contemporary man-child, Maguire makes this essentially disagreeable character almost sympathetic.
The Details is the second feature by Estes, whose 2004 debut, Mean Creek, about adolescent bullying run amok, established him as a serious talent to watch. In its uneasy mixture of comedy, surrealism and stern moralism, The Details is a diatribe that does not aim to please a mass audience conditioned to root for naughty boys.
Jeffs first major slip in a series of mistakes is to get stoned and sleep with Rebecca (Kerry Washington), the discontented wife of his close friend Peter (Ray Liotta), who quickly finds out.
Peter, who is barely able to rein in a streak of violence, gives Jeff two choices: either call Nealy and confess his infidelity or come up with $100,000 in hush money. But in the films moral universe, you cannot buy your way to a clear conscience.
To atone, Jeff makes an enormous, courageous sacrifice to save the life of Lincoln (Dennis Haysbert), a dying basketball buddy. Lincoln has a big heart, and Haysberts intensely emotional performance is the finest of his career. As much as you love him, he is no paragon. And in an appallingly misconceived act of reciprocation, he does Jeff a huge, unasked-for criminal favor.
At certain moments, the male characters decisions bring to mind those turning points in Woody Allens Crimes and Misdemeanors.
A continuing irritant in Jeffs life is his wackadoodle next-door neighbor Lila (Laura Linney), an unstable, sex-starved germaphobe and animal lover whose beloved cat is accidentally poisoned to death in Jeffs crusade against the raccoons.
Instead of turning soft and squishy, this examination of karma gets tougher as it goes along. Its refusal to settle into a cozy niche may be commercially disastrous, but I take it as a sign of integrity.