By Pamela Zoslov
Demolition opens with an auto accident that kills the wife of Davis, a successful Manhattan investment banker. A similar collision is taking place between the styles of the movie’s writer, Bryan Sipe, and its director, the Quebecois Jean-Marc Vallée.
Sipe’s screenplay is a conventionally glossy Hollywood weeper, which has Jake Gyllenhaal as the young widower unable to come to terms with the death of his wife, Julia (Heather Lind). Despite the urgings of his father-in-law, Phil (Chris Cooper), who is also his boss, Davis is unable to cry or grieve in the expected ways. Instead, he becomes obsessed with taking things apart, literally — the refrigerator his wife had asked him to repair; furniture, lamps and bathroom stalls at his office; eventually, his shiny glass-box house in White Plains, which he attacks ferociously with sledgehammers and even a bulldozer. It’s a clumsy, heavy-handed metaphor for grief and the postmortem examination of a marriage. (He’s “taking things apart,” get it?)
Judging from his previous films, Vallée’s contribution may be the unusal details and detours that provide grittiness, European flavor and hints of magic. There’s a twinkly old man who, improbably, sells marijuana by the beach and is the steward of an abandoned carousel that holds a key to Davis’ healing. Then there’s Chris (Judah Lewis), an adolescent boy – the son of a woman who Davis befriends — who is enamored of rock-and-roll androgyny and struggling with his budding bisexuality, a story reminiscent of Vallée’s acclaimed French-language film C.R.A.Z.Y..
Most of us are not privy to what goes into the making of films. My idea of clashing styles is an inference based on Vallée’s handling of films like Dallas Buyer’s Club and Wild. In those movies, both written by others, the French Canadian director brought a vivid intensity to flashbacks of the characters’ wanton lives — Ron Woodson’s drug use and indiscriminate sex that resulted in AIDS, Cheryl Strayed’s decadence that led her to renew herself by hiking the Pacific Crest Trail. Vallée seems to have an affinity for emotionally troubled people. In one scene, involving a handgun and a bulletproof vest (don’t ask), Davis tells young Chris, “You’re one fucked-up kid,” to which Chris replies, accurately, “You’re one fucked-up adult.”
The relationship between Davis and teenage Chris is ancillary to the main story, which begins with the sudden death of Davis’ wife and proceeds through his stages of grief. A candy vending machine at the hospital fails to deliver his M&M’s, so he contacts the vending machine company, writing a long, revealing letter about his life. The epistolary device is appealing — we learn a little about Davis’ character and how he stumbled, through marriage, into a finance career that doesn’t really interest him.
Davis’ letters elicit an unlikely 2 a.m phone call from Karen (Naomi Watts), a customer service representative touched by his confessional writings. Karen is also slightly messed-up, an avid pot smoker living with a boyfriend she’s not crazy about. Davis and Karen engage in a shy flirtation, then a platonic romance. As played by Watts, Karen is an interesting, refreshingly unglamorous figure, but the narrative has her cede the stage to her son and his issues.
Davis continues on his path of destruction, at one point bribing a crew that’s demolishing a house to let him, in his expensive suit, help with a teardown. Father-in-law Phil hectors him about participating in a scholarship program in memory of Julia, an idea Davis resists. His behavior at the office becomes so bizarre that Phil suggests he “take some time off.” Davis seems to be sliding downhill, and by the time he enlists Chris in sledgehammering his house, he seems ready to be committed.
In some ways, the story is reminiscent of the 2012 Silver Linings Playbook, another epistolary story about a man grieving his marriage and trying to regain his sanity. The narrative here is less coherent, wandering all over the place as if bored by this rich guy’s story. (The character is so vain and privileged that it’s supposed to be significant when he puts aside his Tweezerman, no longer caring enough to tweeze his brows.) There’s a late-act revelation about the marriage, and odd flights like a montage of Davis sliding down railings, leaping about and shaking his hips on city streets. Whereas in Silver Linings, Bradley Cooper was able to create a heartbreaking lead character, we don’t really penetrate Gyllenhaal’s handsome exterior; what we feel for him is not so much compassion as alarm — who will clean up his wrecked house?
And yet, things that are perfect are often not interesting. This movie’s narrative bumps and stylistic anomalies, as well as its focus on despair and redemption, give it a certain jagged charm. Grade: B-