The devil is in “The Details,” but only in that this smug and airless comedy feels like 91 minutes in hell. The first few minutes promise a Rube Goldberg whirligig of bad behavior, unhappy coincidences and plain old rotten luck, but all writer-director Jacob Aaron Estes (“Mean Creek”) can deliver is a group of jerks acting like jerks.
If there were any recognizable human beings on screen, this might have delivered the sort of squirmy, uncomfortable laughs that have sustained “Curb Your Enthusiasm” through multiple seasons, but the perpetrators and victims here are all such smug, dull caricatures that none of the intended satirical barbs have anywhere to land.
Tobey Maguire stars as Jeff, a doctor who’s seemingly got the perfect house and perfect nuclear family with his wife Nealy (Elizabeth Banks) and their young son. Unfortunately, their newly-sodded backyard attracts the attention of (metaphor alert!) raccoons. Things get worse when the couple tries expanding the house to accommodate a new child, since the noise, dust and code violations all stoke the mania of their crazy-cat-lady neighbor Lila (Laura Linney).
Over the course of the film, Jeff commits horrible acts (including cheating on his wife with two different women and accidentally poisoning one of Lila’s cats) and generous ones (donating a kidney to a friend in need), and Estes delights in showing the universe punishing and rewarding Jeff purely at random, with no connection to either his sins or his good deeds.
Estes fails, however, to write any real characters, so we have a cast of talented performers trying to breathe life into people with all the depth of chess pieces. Besides Maguire (whose tendency to recede into himself is in full effect here), Banks and Linney, there’s also Kerry Washington, Dennis Haysbert and Ray Liotta trying valiantly to be more than pegs in this plot (which is less elaborate than we’re led to believe) but ultimately they are given nothing to play, nothing to do, no one to inhabit.
Ultimately, “The Details” feels frenetic when it wants to be fast-paced, and facile when it aims for some grand statement about the randomness of existence and the bitter irony of the good falling short while the evil flourish. Rarely funny, never deep and consistently exasperating, it’ll have you cheering for the raccoons.