Grief-based comedy unsuccessfully tries to mix quirky and melancholic
Directed by Jean-Marc Vallée
Cast: Jake Gyllenhaal, Naomi Watts, Chris Cooper
There’s no doubt that grief makes us do funny things. Whether or not it makes us do comedic things is open to debate. Hollywood, for its part, seems to think the latter is perfectly valid, having cranked out plenty of dramedies about death, loss and heartbreak. Demolition is certainly one of them, a tragicomic look at a man struggling with the death of his wife in ways that are strange and offbeat and (maybe) funny.
Demolition is directed by Jean-Marc Vallée (The Young Victoria, Dallas Buyers Club, Wild), an evidently talented filmmaker who has yet to establish a particularly notable style or tone to his work. It stars Jake Gyllenhaal, who recently traded his A-list film career (Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time, Zodiac) for more indie film fare (Enemy, Nightcrawler). Gyllenhaal is front and center as Davis Mitchell, an aimless investment banker whose wife is suddenly killed in an auto accident. Davis responds mostly by going completely numb. He continues to show up at work. He stays up all night staring at nature programs on TV. He even practices crying in the mirror at his wife’s wake. But nothing seems to kick start his ability to feel. Heck, maybe he never had it to begin with.
As we watch Davis’ quiet meltdown, we come to realize he probably wasn’t ever quite happy with his picture perfect life. He cheated his way through college. He was handed his six-figure Wall Street job by his father-in-law (Chris Cooper). He’s bored with his ultramodern Brooklyn home. And maybe he wasn’t really in love with his wife (the luminous Heather Lind from “TURN: Washington’s Spies” and Mistress America, here reduced to a series of mostly silent flashback cameos). Whatever the truth may be, Davis is clearly reacting badly to his wife’s untimely passing—mostly by adopting an assortment of quirky behaviors.
Chief among these quirks is Davis’ reaction to a piece of advice from his father-in-law, who tells him that the surest way to fix something that’s broken is to take it apart. Davis takes the advice literally, tearing his refrigerator to bits in order to correct a tiny leak his wife once pointed out. From there he graduates to dismantling his computer, a couple of wall sconces and a bathroom stall at work. Funny, no? Or sad. I don’t know. Both, probably. That’s pretty much the name of the game around here.
Demolition is narrated in a voiceover by Davis—giving us our our only real insight into his deteriorating state of mind. While in the emergency room following his wife’s death, he pumped some quarters into a vending machine, which subsequently failed to hand over a packet of Peanut M&Ms. Davis takes the opportunity to obsess over the incident, crafting a series of lengthy, increasingly confessional letters to the vending machine company asking for his money back and relating the ups and downs of his now-aborted marriage. These letters form the basis of the film’s narration.
Eventually, the letters fall into the hands of a downtrodden customer service representative named Karen (the always welcome Naomi Watts), who takes particular interest in Davis’ simmering sadness. The two eventually meet and form some sort of not-quite-romantic bond. Though she’s described (by her 15-year-old son, in fact) as a “crazy,” pot-smoking single mother, we end up having to take the film’s word for it. Weirdly, the script never bothers to tell us much about Karen as a person. Instead, Davis ends up spending most of his time (demolishing things, as it turns out) with Karen’s surly kid, Chris (newcomer Judah Lewis).
Chris is emblematic of the film’s separation from everyday reality. He’s a 15-year-old boy who—as evidenced by his love for ancient blues rock, his cracked-
Demolition has plenty of moments that work—most of them thanks to the clearly committed Mr. Gyllenhaal, who’s working as hard as he can to project hidden pain and oddball vulnerability. But the film surrounding him is all over the map in terms of story and tone. It hops around so much, juggling characters and bizarre behavior, that everything ends up feeling rather frivolous. It keeps dropping drama bombs, hoping that they’ll have an impact, but melodramatic plot twists are not the same as well-motivated, character-based catharsis.
As a director Vallée has a solid eye for details. The mound of flowers and food containers piled up, untouched, outside Davis’ front door speaks to his total avoidance of his wife’s death far more succinctly than does his overly metaphorical fixation on breaking things. When the dust settles, it’s the script (by unknown writer Bryan Sipe) that has failed here. It simply collapses after piling on the quirky clichés and trying furiously to convince its audience that craziness is the best, most whimsical solution to life’s toughest problems.