Two cheers for Jake Gyllenhaal.
He’s not only a terrific actor but he’s a key enabler for daring and individuality in American movies. Whether “Southpaw,” “Nightcrawler” and “Enemy” would ever have been made at all without him as their star is an interesting question. But his presence and his talent are the strongest things about all those movies.
So, too, are they the best things about “Demolition.”
Unfortunately, that doesn’t mean that the film even comes within shouting distance of its star. It’s a film whose plot probably sounded good on paper but paper is where it should have stayed. On screen, it is so paper-thin that it becomes overexplicit in search of a legitimacy that never arrives.
This is a movie about a sudden widower so distraught that he demolishes his own house and, just to make sure you get it, wonders aloud if he’s just a living metaphor.
It’s about an investment banker who survives a car accident that kills his wife and makes it impossible for him to pick up the thread of his life – or even to want to.
He has been working for his father-in-law, who is played by the great Chris Cooper. (This film doesn’t suffer from casting problems, that’s for sure.) And Cooper, too, is so good that it grieves you to think about how much he, too, is wasted.
We’re supposed to understand the sterility and empty capitulation of life as an investment banker, but the way this movie plays it, you have to take it on faith that it is. As with so much else here, that sterility is unearned. It’s just attitudinizing – and snobbery.
The script by Bryan Sipe sounds like something an ambitious English major would cook up after reading Saul Bellow’s “Herzog” and Walker Percy’s “The Moviegoer” (and maybe Ralph Ellison’s “Invisible Man”) without quite understanding how much all three American fictional masterworks depended on being novels and NOT films.
Gyllenhaal, as Davis Mitchell, reacts to his wife’s death by letting his alienation from his own life show in ever-accelerating amounts. The standard life wisdom of “time heals” and that eventually he’ll be able to “move on” is turned upside down. The more he’s expected to return to “normal,” the less he is able to – or wants to.
When he finds out that his life with his wife wasn’t quite as simple as he thought it was, he is completely derailed.
He has become the kind of man who reacts to a malfunctioning vending machine by writing long, rambling, autobiographical letters to the company imploring them to fix it. (Is all this metaphor giving you a headache yet?)
What happens instead is that an employee of the company – played by Naomi Watts – takes pity and is somehow captured by the plaintive tone of his letters.
The two circle each other a bit and then come chastely together. Along with her, comes her teenage son, played by Judah Lewis.
Eventually things become so symbolic that Gyllenhaal and Lewis come together for the task of dismantling his house with a sledge hammer, piece by piece, with the ostensible aim of starting over.
There is some humor here of a notably dark and off-the-wall sort, but not nearly enough to make the movie convincing. So too is there some emotional affect from the revelations about the secrets that lay deep within his marriage. But they don’t quite register in a central character whose inner numbness has settled on life-demolition as the only sensible course.
The director is Jean-Marc Vallee, a specialist in midlife crises and the search for spiritual legitimacy and a successful sense of self. I didn’t particularly believe in his “Wild” either, and only went along with “The Dallas Buyers Club” because of Matthew McConaughey and the indisputable fact that the movie gave some very fine performers a chance to mourn on screen how much their own profession had been ravaged by AIDS.
“Demolition” is the least, by far, of these Vallee films, even though Gyllenhaal’s performance struggles admirably to haul it up to its own level.
It doesn’t succeed. The script just won’t allow it.
Sipe seems to have found inspiration in great 20th century American novels. But his real kinship is probably with the writer whose work he adapted in his last film – Nicholas Sparks.
It’s not that Gylenhaal’s ambitions need adjustment. It’s just that his script-searching focus does.
2.5 stars (Out of four)
Starring: Jake Gyllenhaal, Naomi Watts, Chris Cooper, Judah Lewis
Director: Jean-Marc Vallee
Running time: 100 minutes
Rating: R for language and some sex and drugs.
The Lowdown: Investment banker wrecks his life when he loses his wife in a car accident.