If Demolition were a novel, I probably wouldn’t have finished it.
Although the movie deals with important issues surrounding the devastations of grief, it strains for metaphorical significance at nearly every turn, even as it tries to temper its seriousness with offbeat expressions of humor.
For 27 years, Robert Denerstein was the film critic at The Rocky Mountain News. Read more of Robert's reviews at Denerstein Unleashed.
The story centers on Davis Mitchell (Jake Gyllenhaal), a Wall Street type who loses his wife (Heather Lind) in an automobile accident that opens the movie.
Davis, who works for his father-in-law (Chris Cooper), feels nothing; the day after the funeral, he’s back in the office — much to the consternation of his colleagues.
But as the movie progresses, it becomes clear that Davis isn’t simply callous; his emotional numbness touches nearly everything he does. Get it? There’s something deeply wrong with Davis’ life.
Bryan Sipe’s screenplay uses an oddball conceit to emphasize Davis’ inability to sustain intimacy. He begins sharing details of his life in letters he writes to the customer service department of a vending machine company.
The correspondence begins because a machine in the hospital where Davis’ wife died failed to deliver candy or return his money.
Davis’ persistence strikes a chord with customer service rep Karen Moreno (Naomi Watts). The two develop a strange relationship in which Davis takes on the role of mentor — albeit a slightly twisted one — to Karen’s teen-age son (Judah Lewis), a surly kid who’s struggling with his sexual identity.
On some level, Davis understands that he must take his life apart, and he begins to do just that — all too literally.
He starts by dismantling the refrigerator in the ultra modern home he shared with his late wife, and extends his destructive impulses to his computer at work and to the office’s bathroom stalls. He’s working much too hard, and so, I’m afraid, is the movie.
Davis’ DYI demolition derby remains problematic. Davis destroys the life he apparently never really wanted — or, at least, never thought much about, but shows little interest in putting it back together.
Gyllenhaal does surprisingly well with a character in whom it’s not always easy to believe; the always reliable Cooper grounds his character in credible rage at a son-in-law who appears massively insensitive, and Watts seems a bit stranded as another wobbly character.
The cast handles the movie’s tonal shifts easily enough, and Jean-Marc Vallee (Wild and Dallas Buyers Club) directs with commitment and obvious concern for material that’s trying to get beyond ordinary multiplex constraints.
But for all its attempts at quirkiness and creativity, Demolition fails to ring true. Before a movie can dig deep, it has to pay a lot more attention to surface details which, in this case, too often leave us scratching our heads.