*1/2 out of ****
for strong language, some sexual references, drug use, and disturbing behavior
Released: April 8, 2016
Runtime: 100 minutes
Director: Jean-Marc Vallée
Starring: Jake Gyllenhaal, Naomi Watts, Chris Cooper, Judah Lewis, Polly Draper, Heather Lind
Tracking the mental breakdown of a cocksure investment banker after the sudden death of his wife, Demolition is too pathological to be relatable yet not pathological enough to be subversive and unpredictable. On the contrary, Bryan Sipe’s obnoxiously over-written screenplay seems to have researched everything it knows about psychosomatic crisis strictly from other movies. Ironically, trying to peddle this formulaic tripe as a deep, thoughtful portrayal may drive a few real-life psychiatrists crazy.
Or let’s assess it in cinematic terms. Demolition plays like something that’s trying really hard to be a more-grounded Charlie Kaufman dissection – with its mix of emotional detachment, dark humor, pervasive melancholy, and bizarre behavior – but from a writer that hasn’t gone through the deep existential valleys that Kaufman has (and still does). This feels like the Hollywood version of that. All contrivance, no resonance.
Jake Gyllenhaal is Davis, a guy who’s had virtually everything handed to him (and bought the rest). His life is a beautiful façade, but his soulless corpse is disguised by a wealthy veneer. Davis’s lack of grief following his wife’s death simply betrays what a sham the marriage was to begin with. Or, more accurately, what a sham he was as a husband. But of course his emotional walls and barriers must be a consequence of unresolved pain, not indicative of simply being, well, a selfish jerk.
Out of the blue, Davis becomes obsessed with demolishing everything. First specific items, like appliances, then eventually his sleek ultra-modern home. He wants to break everything down, take it apart, and figure out how things are made, and what makes them work. Hmmmm, can we say metaphor? If you can’t, don’t worry: the film will. It screams it. Subtle, this ain’t. But how can Davis ever hope to figure out how things work when he keeps bringing mallets and power saws to jobs that require a screwdriver? The same problem applies to the film’s psychological excavation.
Demolition’s sense of self-import is an albatross that’s levied like a sledgehammer. As a screenwriter, Sipe simultaneously thinks too much of his own writing and too little of his audience. The whole demolition construct is a painfully obvious allusion to the internal deconstruction/rebuilding that Davis needs. Even now I’m telling you something you already know. But in case Sipe’s brilliance flies over your head (like he assumes it will), he has Davis literally tell us that he now sees life in metaphor. Hashtag eye roll.
Everything here is forced: narrative arch, character decisions, relationships, choices, and yes – metaphors. Davis’s ongoing narration is a prime example. Not only does it laboriously provide exposition – both for background and subtext – but it can’t even be as simple as his own internal monologue. Instead, it comes from the lengthy complaint letters he writes to a female customer service rep at a vending company.
Davis doesn’t simply gripe about a broken candy machine; he unloads his own personal history and baggage. It’s a silly, artificial plot device that lacks credibility and, more than anything, provides Sipe the excuse to cram in every bit of self-consciously clever dialogue that a better writer would trim back. Naturally, Davis ends up forming a relationship with Karen (Naomi Watts), the female rep on the receiving end of these letters. They’re drawn to each other, yet neither can explain why. (Hint: the script needs them to.)
Karen has issues of her own, and there’s supposed to be something poignant about their connection…except that the film quickly pushes Karen to the margins as Davis connects with her angsty teenage son Chris (Judah Lewis) who has issues of his own. Together they destroy some things, shoot guns (including at each other), listen to raging and/or psychedelic rock, ponder life, profanity, identity, sexuality. There’s even a moment when Davis pushes Chris in a grocery cart down an aisle while Chris holds his arms in the air – you know, the tell-tale indie movie sign of an emotional breakthrough! Along the way they learn stuff about life and, of course, themselves. You know, just like in the movies. But never in the real world.
The only thing closely resembling reality here is Chris Cooper, Davis’s uber-rich father-in-law Phil. This has little to do with the character and everything to do with Cooper’s nuanced, instinctive talent. He’s the bad guy here, however, because he’s never given Davis a fair shake – but why should he? Phil’s assessment of Davis seems pretty spot on, actually, yet he’s the a-hole. (Hint: it’s because he’s rich.)
What’s particularly sad is that Demolition comes from director Jean-Marc Vallée . His last two similarly themed efforts (Dallas Buyers Club and Wild, which both received some Oscar love) avoided clichés at every turn. Demolition, by contrast, doubles down on them, right to the unearned transformation Davis experiences (through yet another contrivance) in the film’s rushed climax. It’s no mystery why this movie’s release was delayed from last fall: it was too heavy-handed even for Awards season.
At its core, Demolition implodes because of a scriptwriter enamored with his own genius, one who goes out of his way to make sure that said genius isn’t lost on the clueless plebian masses. It’s an insufferable excess that even Vallée’s notable skills as a filmmaker cannot mask or authenticate. Ugh. This movie is such a disaster, but at least it allows Demolition to live up to its name.