Have you noticed how Tobey Maguire — short, trim, boyish — is Michael J. Fox 2.0? What the “Back to the Future” movies were for Fox, the “Spider-man” series was for Maguire. There are notable differences. Maguire didn’t come out of television. He doesn’t mug for the camera or keep the energy dial turned all the way to the right. Most important, Maguire has a wariness — the suggestion of a capacity for waywardness — that Fox has never been capable of. Those deep-set eyes of Maguire’s seem so watchful — not just because he’s observant, which he is, but also because he just might be up to something.
This side of Maguire has been put to good use before: in “The Ice Storm” and, especially, “The Good German.” It’s really put to use in “The Details.” In fact, it’s what drives this smart and strange sort-of comedy from writer-director Jacob Aaron Estes. “The Details” manages to be both compelling and unsatisfying. But what limits it isn’t lack of execution. The movie is many things, but a mess isn’t one of them. Estes knows exactly what he wants. Whether it’s worth wanting is another matter.
Maguire, as Jeff, a Seattle obstetrician, is up to all sorts of things: a yen for Internet porn, illegally putting an addition on to the house he shares with his wife (Elizabeth Banks) and their 2-year-old son; passive-aggressive adultery; and waging war on the neighborhood raccoons.
What seems like a comedy of yuppie desperation turns into something much . . . odder. How odd? “I taught you how to make pesto!” is a laugh line — and delivered by Ray Liotta, of all people. (He’s the husband of Kerry Washington, a medical school classmate of the Maguire character.) The chief oddity takes the form of Laura Linney, as a loony next-door neighbor. With her pigtails and squint and floral prints, she reincarnates Karen Black — and seems to be loving every minute of it. The fate of her cat becomes a significant plot point. So does her one encounter with a basketball-playing buddy of Maguire’s. He’s played by Dennis Haysbert, unrecognizable with a shaved head and salt-and-pepper beard — until that distant-thunder baritone is heard.
Banks is in high Stepford kewpie-doll mode — so much so that one assumes Estes intends her to seem as grotesque as Linney’s neighbor is (oh, those lean, narrow-eyed blondes!) but in a far less colorful way. Then Banks has a scene just before the end where she takes over the movie and kicks it up a couple of gears. This may be the single biggest surprise in a movie that’s full of them.
“The Details” doesn’t work, but it doesn’t work in such intriguing ways. Traces can be discerned of “Blue Velvet” and “Election” and “Strangers on a Train” (how’s that for a trifecta?). There’s even a nod to “The Player” at the very end. But Estes’s movie really is its own flavor. That flavor may not be much palatable, but uniqueness is awfully rare in this culture. Its presence counts for something and deserves attention. It also makes you curious (if not necessarily eager) to see what Estes does next.
Mark Feeney can be reached at email@example.com.