In the opening scene of “The Details,” a piano falls and crushes Tobey Maguire. As metaphors go, that’s an understatement for the sheer volume of bad karma Maguire’s not-so-happily married character racks up over the course of writer-director Jacob Aaron Estes’ long-awaited second feature. A story of domestic disintegration loosely inspired by events in Estes’ own life, “The Details” serves up scathing self-examination (featuring one of the least likable protags in recent memory) in the guise of carefree black comedy, making for the sort of uneasy grown-up entertainment that takes a heavily misleading trailer to find its aud.
The way Dr. Jeff Lang (Maguire) sees it, raccoons are ruining his marriage. No sooner does he install a new lawn than the critters descend and tear it up. But if Lang were to step back, he’d realize the backyard invaders are the least of the problems in his home life. There are major cracks in the foundation, so to speak: He and beautiful wife Nealy (Elizabeth Banks) haven’t had sex in six months, and when they argue, which is often, it’s loud enough that the neighbors can hear.
Those arguments are just one of the ways that “The Details,” whatever its faults, manages to distinguish itself. When Jeff and Nealy go at it, they don’t let fly with perfectly articulated Edward Albee-esque insults; rather, they try to out-shout one another in a torrent of unfocused anger — making you realize how seldom filmed domestic squabbles resemble the real thing.
Six years after making his debut with the teen-focused “Mean Creek,” Estes has graduated to telling adult stories, stripping back the genteel conventions of romantic comedy to reveal the bitterness that can accompany married life. That perspective may not be pretty, but it’s rendered reasonably palatable by a game cast of attractive stars.
Nuttiest among them is “whackadoodle neighbor” Lila (Laura Linney), a hilariously unbalanced spinster who falls somewhere between crazy cat lady and bunny boiler. For married couple Peter (Ray Liotta) and Rebecca (Kerry Washington), longtime friends of the Langs, their age difference may suggest a shallow, sex-based marriage, but circumstances reveal a surprising maturity on Peter’s part. Still, no one has a better take on life’s priorities than terminally ill Lincoln (a virtually unrecognizable Dennis Haysbert), whose presence brings out the best in the otherwise self-absorbed Lang.
It takes an actor as winsome as Maguire to rescue the character from the brink of irredeemability. While the Hippocratically hypocritical Lang is not exactly incapable of doing good, his actions are invariably motivated by self-interest alone. Killing raccoons is one thing, but it’s hard to imagine anyone being able to forgive the spiral of misbehavior that follows, with peccadilloes ranging from building-code violations to serial infidelity. And yet, what is marriage if not the mutual acceptance of one another’s flaws?
Brutal cynicism aside, Estes doesn’t seem to be going for naturalism. While its studio-caliber production aspects remain consistent, “The Details” actually changes shape throughout, at times bordering on the surreal as Lang’s bad decisions begin to suffocate his life. Estes frames the story almost like a fairy tale, complete with narrator and perky, music-box score (from Tomandandy), but the helmer is clearly conflicted about the possibility of happily-ever-afters.
In the absence of open communication with his wife, Lang turns to his acquaintances for support, yielding rather more introspection than auds welcome in a date movie (which this most certainly isn’t). Two scenes in particular — one with Lila, the other with Nealy — call for page upon page of dialogue, some of it funny, but most of the ideas coming from an emotionally naked place in which Estes seems to be laying bare his own personal weaknesses via Lang’s character. “The Details” is courageous in that respect, as is Maguire for shouldering such an emotionally vulnerable character. If you think marriage is hard, try living with yourself.