‘Details’ doesn’t quite gather momentum it needs

What is “The Details”? A slightly surreal film noir, perhaps, or an “American Beauty” with larceny in its soul? Or a black comedy with something serious to say?

If the movie had a little more urgency, it might be easier to care about the answer. Meet the Lang family, from the suburbs outside Seattle, a pleasant young couple with a toddler son.

Husband Jeff (Tobey Maguire) is a sex-starved doctor who gets into various layers of trouble when his discontent leads him into a few wrong situations. As the dominos fall, he finds himself rationalizing bad decisions.

Or, in the movie’s less convincing moments, he simply goes with the flow and fails to do the right thing. Wife Nealy (Elizabeth Banks) is on the sidelines for most of this, although toward the end of the movie she jumps back into the thick of it and you realize how much she might have added along the way.

One of Jeff’s mistakes has to do with an attractive med-school classmate (Kerry Washington), who is unfortunately married to a thuggish tough guy (Ray Liotta). The indiscretion is comprehensible, although his encounters with a well-described “wackadoodle neighbor” (Laura Linney, having some fun) are maybe less so.

There’s also a subplot with Jeff’s pal from a pickup basketball league, played by Dennis Haysbert (quite a sight with shaved head and big gray beard — although there’s no mistaking his voice). This might actually have some resonance, but Haysbert’s role feels like it exists mostly to set up later plot turns.

In fact, for a movie that wants to suggest how one bad move leads directly into the briar patch, “The Details” doesn’t quite have that film noir sense of tumbling inevitability about it. The mood is just a little too casual, somehow.

Some of this might be down to Tobey Maguire’s glazed presence. He draws some of the slow-burning humor out of the early scenes, but he doesn’t project the drive that might convince us that Jeff’s restlessness would absolutely have to go down this crooked path.

Director Jacob Aaron Estes’ previous film was “Mean Creek,” a serious account of teens and their response to a bad situation. He has a good sense of how lies can take on power, and he’s got an interesting idea for the ending of “The Details,” which leaves an effective chill in the air. It’s worth a look, but could use a stronger engine.

“The Details” (2½ stars)

The decision-making skills of a restless, sex-starved doctor (Tobey Maguire) are sorely tested in this black-comic film noir with surreal touches. Somehow the film doesn’t quite gather the momentum is wants to drum up, and Maguire is a little too glazed to convey the urgency of his situation. With Elizabeth Banks, Laura Linney.

Rated: R for language, subject matter.

Showing: Sundance.

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