Investment banker Davis Mitchell (Jake Gyllenhaal) has spent a long time not paying attention to the very picture perfect, successful, and predictable life he’s been living. But when he finally does look up, he’s sitting in the passenger seat of a car, and it’s too late to warn his wife Julia (Heather Lind) that she’s about to be side-swiped. And so begins Jean-Marc Vallée’s “Demolition,” with a death that awakens a young man who has been sleepwalking through his own existence for far too long.
Julia’s death instigates a wellspring of mourning. Flowers and food appear on Davis’s doorstep, his mother and father move in for a spell, Julia’s parents are nearly paralyzed by the loss of their only child, but Davis finds himself feeling absolutely nothing, and unable to properly grieve. He pours out his feelings in the first of what becomes a series of confessional letters to the Champion Vending Machine Company, initially under the guise of asking for a refund when the hospital candy machine fails to dispense the Peanut M&Ms he orders the same night Julia dies. This is just the first quirk in a movie overburdened with them, turning the film’s superficial observation of life into something phony and crassly manipulative.
As you might expect, Davis’s handwritten disclosures of his deepest feelings capture the attention of customer service at Champion, which is run entirely by the pothead, single mom, Karen (Naomi Watts). She’s sympathetic and curious about the man on the other end of the letters and first starts calling Davis, and then later, stalking him. But he’s intrigued by Karen, and soon the duo form a fledgling relationship that seems entirely built around their own selfishness. Ultimately, this a movie about selfish people discovering how crippling their self-absorption has been…but only after a good run of crowd-pleasing hijinks.
Indeed, there are a few clichés that go untouched in the picture, and when Davis quips that suddenly “for some reason, everything has become a metaphor,” he’s not kidding around. Upon the realization that his own life and riches have been unfulfilling, Davis literally begins taking things apart, whether it’s his own appliances, or computers and bathroom stalls at the office, where his father-in-law Phil (Chris Cooper) is left wonder why his son-in-law is circling the drain professionally and personally. However, the audience is supposed to find Davis’ sudden burst of whimsy, enabled by Karen’s nonjudgemental attention, touching and endearing. When the pair run on into a flock of birds at the beach (really) and build a couch fort (no, really), we’re supposed to be touched their unreserved embrace of living life without the boundaries that come with being a responsible adult. It also means that Davis is able to quickly bond with Karen’s troubled teenage son Chris (Judah Lewis), because he’s so direct and real. “You’re one fucked up kid,” Davis tells the kid, who shoots back, “You’re one fucked up adult.”
Bryan Sipe‘s script cheaply engineers Davis’s soul-searching. Simply put, finding yourself is quite easy when you have enough money to comfortably take a break from work, drive around in your Porsche and, on an impulse, decide to join a construction crew tearing down a house, or buy a bulldozer on eBay to tear down your own. Coming to grips with the loss of your wife when you have no job to report to, or child to raise, or even bills to worry about certainly makes these endeavors easier. Davis’s road is paved with pain, to be sure, but otherwise, there are few other obstacles for him to overcome. And Sipe seems to realize this, so as we wait for Davis to have various newfound realizations about his life, the screenwriter decides to cheaply amplify the drama in the final third of the movie with at least three major twists and reveals that feel more appropriate for a daytime soap opera than a prestige picture.
Certainly, it’s hard to believe that both Jean-Marc Vallée and Jake Gyllenhaal got involved in this kind of material. For a director who has previously shown a knack for sensitively playing out big emotions, “Demolition” finds the filmmaker seriously miscalibrating his approach this time out. The film’s attempted cathartic payoff is inauthentic and unearned, and it’s a shame considering that Gyllenhaal once again gives a committed turn. It may not be the best of his recent string of performances, but he finds the centered balance of pathos and humor the film needs, but that is otherwise lost in the overcooked melodrama. As for Watts, Karen is left underdeveloped for far too long, and when she gets a big scene towards the film’s climax, it’s a grand gesture with very little underneath to sell the feeling it wants to transmit.
When we first meet Davis, his life is rigidly scheduled and regimented, and for much of “Demolition,” he tries to shake up the rut he had fallen into. Unfortunately, the movie itself doesn’t share that same spirit of spontaneity, imagination, and genuine curiosity about its own characters and the circumstances they’re in. Rather, it’s a frivolous lark, riddled with manufactured breakthroughs, that doesn’t demolish the tropes of the eccentric finding-yourself genre, but falls rather blandly right into them. [D]