By Mitch Ward
People grieve in different ways, some of them attractive and some of them reproachful. Maybe if Demolition had been a dissection of that truth, like Alexander Payne’s The Descendants (2011), it would have made for an interesting film. While it might start off that way, the comedy-drama ultimately winds up becoming a hollow character study of an excruciatingly self-centered man.
After becoming recently widowed when his wife dies in a car accident, Davis Mitchell (Jake Gyllenhaal) comes to the uncomfortable realization that he never truly loved her. While those around him mourn in an apparently healthy fashion, Davis develops an odd habit: he compulsively tears objects apart to see what’s inside. Along the way he befriends a single mom (Naomi Watts) and her fifteen-year-old son (Judah Lewis), both of whom bear non-judgmental witness to his newfound hobby.
Director Jean-Marc Vallée’s past two films, Dallas Buyers Club (2013) and Wild (2014), also deal with characters breaking down their lives to assess the damage and start over. Demolition takes this theme quite literally. From refrigerators to bathroom stalls to computers, nothing is safe from Davis as he tries to find some reason to miss his wife.
While these scenes of deconstruction start off as humorous, they quickly lose their comedic potency. Eventually, Davis starts doing things the audience is meant to find edgy, like stepping on a nail and rejoicing at the pain, putting on a bulletproof vest and asking someone to shoot him, or telling a sexually confused high school student to repress his feelings until graduating. But instead of coming across as edgy, they instead feel obnoxious.
Many of Demolition’s problems stem from tonal confusion. It attempts to land that balance between studio drama and quirky indie comedy that only David O. Russell has really been able to achieve. This straddling between genres makes the movie feel utterly fake, which is troublesome when making a movie about honesty. What also makes Demolition troublesome is its insistence that Davis, an apathetic, well-to-do investment banker, is the most honest person in his world. This is a shame because Gyllenhaal, one of the best actors right now, gives a fine performance here. It’s clear he saw something in this role beyond a prospective Oscar nod. To find that out might mean to demolish the movie itself, but that would end up being a fruitless endeavor.