I've often said that the most influential films of the past 25 years were Pulp Fiction and The Matrix, two movies that have been copied endlessly by filmmakers who had nary a clue as to what these films were actually doing.
It's a list to which I'd also add American Beauty, a movie that examined the rot beneath the veneer of idyllic suburban life. How many films have you seen with that same template: the seemingly mundane suburbanite whose world is upended and, in turn, who upends his life as a result?
The Details, opening in limited release Friday November 2nd, is the latest film to try to follow the American Beauty template -- and to do so badly. It's as if writer-director Jacob Aaron Estes made a list of things he wanted to include in his movie, one that included a smug doctor, a crazy neighbor, a shaky marriage, a kidney transplant, murder, infidelity, archery (the year's most tired meme) and raccoons. Then he randomly drew lines from one to another and made it his challenge to figure out a way to connect them dramatically (or comedically).
The Details seems both calculated and random -- or perhaps calculatedly random. The connections seem arbitrary; they have no resonance or shock value. In order to make an audience say, "Whoa -- I didn't see that coming," you have to have the surprise make actual dramatic sense.
Otherwise, as noted, it's all just random, like the humor of Bill Griffith's comic strip, Zippy the Pinhead. But Zippy is funny exactly because he's random. Randomness for its own sake is just, well, random. Are we having fun yet? Hardly.
Of course, Estes' first misstep was in casting Tobey Maguire as Dr. Jeff Lang, a cheery Seattle OB/GYN with a wife, a kid and a house in the suburbs. Like his contemporary, Elijah Wood, Maguire is condemned to eternal boyishness; he's actually 37, but he looks 18. Even worse, he's got the expressiveness of a 5-year-old -- all big emotions and no subtlety. That was fine when he was playing a comic-book hero; when he's playing a 30-something physician, well, sorry, I'm not buying it.
He's married to Elizabeth Banks (strike two; sorry, not buying it) and is a regular at his health club playing basketball with a group that includes Dennis Haysbert. Strike three -- you're out.
But, no, there's more. The Lang marriage has gone stale; to sublimate, Jeff whacks it to Internet porn, then pours his passion into his backyard, which he has just resodded. But his balance is tipped when raccoons begin decimating his yard nightly, seeking the worms that came with the sod. This so unhinges Jeff that he winds up -- oh, wait, I forgot: The raccoons are just an excuse. They seem like a trivial contrivance to bring all the other elements -- the crazy neighbor, infidelity, murder and a kidney transplant (the most random element of all) -- into the mix.
But -- and this is a big but -- some elements aren't meant to be mixed. Instead of a heady brew of passion and comedy, you end up with something that resembles the equivalent of blending M&Ms, pickles, fruitcake and blue cheese. What a crazy idea -- not a good one, just a crazy one.
Maguire reveals most of his shortcomings as an actor here. Whenever he shares a scene with someone as solid as Banks, Laura Linney or Haysbert, it's as if he disappears.
Much as your memory of The Details will vanish before you've even left the theater, if not before. No details necessary -- the broad stroke is that you should skip The Details.
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