Writer-director Jacob Aaron Estes’s The Details is as smug and self-satisfied as its privileged lead character. Starring Tobey Maguire as Seattle doctor and paterfamilias Jeff Lang, the film continually involves our blinkered hero in a series of boundary-crossing incidents, ranging from the relatively harmless to the downright criminal. But Estes always lets Jeff off easy. It’s as if he’s loath to castigate a man for the simple crime of being upper middle class, selfishly selfless, and attractive to women, so he keeps displacing his lead character’s guilt onto others, until it all comes back in a rush to haunt him in a way that feels like desperate overcompensation on the part of the filmmaker.
Jeff is a squirmy little shit, concerned principally with enlarging his suburban home, fending off raccoons from his yard, and engaging in X-rated online correspondence with young Asian women, since his wife, Nealy (Elizabeth Banks), doesn’t want to screw anymore. Out of some sense of remorse, and possibly to win his wife’s approval, Jeff takes it upon himself to improve the fortunes of an older black man, Lincoln (Dennis Haysbert), with whom he plays basketball. When Jeff learns that Lincoln suffered a car accident in collage that ended a very promising basketball career, and that he suffers from kidney failure and has to work double shifts to make ends meet, the do-gooder moves into action, first getting Lincoln a good job as a basketball coach and then offering him one of his kidneys.
But good intentions often go awry, most significantly, if indirectly, because the apparently irresistible Jeff is twice presented with easy sexual possibilities which he’s unable to refuse—first by an old med-school friend, Rebecca (Kerry Washington), unhappily married to a boor, Peter (Ray Liotta), with an odd sense of honor, then by his loony next-door neighbor, Lila (Laura Linney), who extracts sex as payment for not turning him into the city for a building violation. All these things, along with Jeff’s unwillingness to come clean to his wife and a much more serious incident later in the film involving Lincoln, are vaguely his fault, and still the film can’t commit to holding Jeff at all culpable since, after all, his only real crime is being a self-centered yuppie.
Estes’s strategy is clearly one of dislocation: Every time Jeff is potentially at fault, the burden of culpability is placed on a character so crazy that the good doctor’s actions seem perfectly sane by comparison. Needless to say, Jeff never seduces anyone; he’s simply the victim of feminine wiles, at least in the case of Linney’s unfortunate character. A lonely, vindictive, undersexed woman, Lila is half-crazy and fully irritating, but what’s worse is that her loopiness, presumably intended to serve for some unsuccessful dark comedy, is played as a sort of caricature of the hysterical woman, making the role, along with Haysbert’s bowing-before-white-folks basketballer, among the most unpalatable characterizations in recent cinema.
And when Liotta’s jealous husband confronts the doctor about screwing his wife, essentially calling him out as the little shit he is and wondering why he hasn’t come clean with his own wife, these perfectly reasonable criticisms are covered up by the fact that the man chastising our hero is also essentially unhinged, a judgment that becomes clear once he throws $75,000 worth of cash into the river. Even when Jeff finally does own up to his wife, his shame is immediately tempered by her making a similar confession of her own.
But guilt comes back with a vengeance in The Details, since otherwise we would just have an amoral tale of upper-middle-class privilege run amok. After the ultimate displacement of the doctor’s desires results in an act of criminal willfulness, Jeff finally breaks down in a bout of self-blame, which seems as harsh in its disproportion to his actual actions as the rest of the film had been generous in its shifting of responsibility away from its hero. But one doesn’t make up for the other. The guilt-fest is presented with the same smug self-satisfaction of his prior house-expanding, porn-watching, and do-gooder ways. A tacked-on ending, seemingly lifted from The Player and whose breathless cynicism is presented as hard reality, doesn’t help. In Altman’s film, the operative mode, particularly in the conclusion, was satire. Caught between gently cheeky observation and ethical rendering, The Details is too committed to its central shithead for satirical intent, which would require a level of distanced criticism that Estes is incapable of but which might have been the only way for the film to break through a level of self-satisfaction that, in its ugliness, rivals that of its privileged hero.