Review: 'Demolition'

Jean-Marc Vallée's latest film, 'Demolition,' fails to illuminate any
sort of meaning amid the chaos.
'DEMOLITION' MAN: In the Jean-Marc Vallée's latest film, Jake Gyllenhaal plays Davis, a widower dealing with the death of his wife in destructive ways.

Thought you'd escape the wanton devastation in Batman v. Superman by going to the allegedly mature drama Demolition? The joke's on you. Jean-Marc Vallée's follow-up to his excellent Wild and his middling Dallas Buyer's Club concerns a man who seeks catharsis through smashing things.

Like Bruce Wayne, Davis (Jake Gyllenhaal) is an affluent, muscular executive, driving around in an expensive car, traumatized by the death of a loved one. The real Batman never had to describe the worst day of his life as Davis does at the dinner table, when he displays a stiff upper lip over the death of his wife Julia (Heather Lind): 'Massive head trauma in a car accident. Can you pass the salt?'

Davis has been cracking up ever since his wife was killed, and he's acting out through an obsession to take things apart—requiring bigger and better tools with each new project. Clearly Davis' compulsive deconstruction is a way of anatomizing his melancholy. He says he wants to see how things work. It's like the existential anecdote about Mr. Flitcraft in The Maltese Falcon, the man who was almost killed in a freak accident and who felt like some force had taken 'the lid off of life and let him look at the works.'

Davis' boss, Phil, is also his father-in-law. Played by Chris Cooper (too good for the flat part of an ornery investment banker), this also-grieving father is becoming alarmed by the disassembled computers and taken-apart bathroom stalls turning up at his office.

In one scene, Davis recounts his sad story in letter form to the complaints department of a vending machine company. As if he hadn't been manic-pixie enough for one movie, ultimately his correspondent gives him a phone call in the middle of the night. She's Karen Moreno (Naomi Watts). The running joke is: 'Not Hispanic, like her name suggests.'

What begins is a relationship of equal parts stalking and love letters. To give the relationship some friction, Karen is living with her boyfriend and boss, Carl (C. J. Wilson), a tough, middle-aged man with tribal tattoos and, unaccountably, a Joy Division t-shirt. Staying with them, unhappily, is Karen's fatherless and angry teenage son, Chris (Judah Lewis). The boy's favorite word starts with the letter F.

Chris and David bond through mutual smashing and recreational gunplay. Wearing a bulletproof vest, Davis volunteers to be a human target for Chris. The wacky behavior liberates him. Davis starts to dance in public; in concealed camera shots, real-life people react to the sight of noted actor Jake Gyllenhaal twirling down Manhattan streets. He's light-footed, but this is a heavy-handed movie. Gyllenhaal has been getting some praise for this performance, and the narcissism is attractive for a time. But after a while we're stuck in his zone—cornered.

Considering what a vivid, not-to-be-consoled ghost Laura Dern was in Wild, it's surprising how little we can feel for the ghost Julia, popping up in flashbacks. The grieving Davis seems to have one job—picking candidates for a memorial scholarship. He ultimately prefers a more accessible monument to his wife, giving supremacy to a kid's view of happiness over what can be achieved through learning. This movie isn't about recovering passion with a new lover or coming to an understanding about the depth of grief. It's about tantrums. It's about making couch-forts with sheets and flashlights, and riding carousels.

Bryan Sipe (The Choice) scripted the film, but who knows who to credit for the ending, which features a matching pair of fistfights edited in with what looks like last-minute panic. (The surefooted editing in Wild, which kept Cheryl Strayed's ordeal in a constant present tense, is tangled up in this finale.)

Sipe, who is from the Jersey Shore, cited Bruce Springsteen as an influence on his writing. There's not much common-man celebration, though, in a story of a man with so much money he can drive a sledgehammer through his granite kitchen counters and his 40-inch TV as a way of releasing his bottled up tensions. And there's not much interest in the blue-collar characters—like the two low-comedy construction guys, willing to be bribed so that this suit-clad Davis can wield a Sawzall for therapy. If there's such a thing as artisanal soap, there must be artisanal soap operas. There hasn't been a movie about grief this awkward since Reign Over Me.

R; 101 min.
Opens Friday at Camera 12

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