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Film review: Jake Gyllenhaal does little to rescue Jean-Marc Vallee's quirk ridden 'Demolition'


Director Jean-Marc Vallee was responsible for Dallas Buyers Club, a film that impressed me very much. Sadly his new offering, Demolition, veers into Wes Anderson territory—a veritable quirk fest that does a disservice to its tragic subject matter.

Jake Gyllenhaal plays Davis Mitchell, a successful investment banker, who’s driving home with his wife Julia when their car is T-boned by an unseen driver. When Davis wakes up in the hospital, he discovers that his wife is a fatality and he has survived virtually without a scratch.

Screenwriter Bryan Sipe then proceeds to serve up a protagonist who’s hardly believable in his pre-mourning incarnation. Davis appears as an unlikable automaton, completely cut off from his emotions. After a package of M&M’s get stuck in a vending machine at the hospital, he bizarrely begins a letter writing campaign to the customer service department of the vending machine company. In a series of letters (narrated as voice overs), Davis clinically explicates his past life experiences prior to the accident.

Soon afterward, he shows up for work shortly after the funeral, much to the chagrin of his father-in-law Phil, who owns the investment company where he works. Davis’ mourning process is a quirky one indeed as he feels a compulsion to take everything apart–which includes dismantling the bathroom stall at work. It’s Phil who suggests he take a leave of absence.At this point, Davis meets up with Karen (Naomi Watts), a customer service rep at the vending company, who has been moved by his letters and is just as quirky as him. Karen lives with Carl, her boss, along with her 15 year old son, Chris (newcomer Judah Lewis). When Carl goes away on an extended business trip, Davis develops a platonic friendship with Karen and stays over at her house.

Karen proves a weak character with little to do, but it’s Judah Lewis as her foul-mouthed son who steals the show. Lewis has natural acting talent playing Chris, the juvenile delinquent who eventually bonds with Davis, confessing to him that he might be gay. Davis becomes a mentor to Chris as he enters the deeper anger phase of his mourning process. First he conscripts his young charge to accompany him as he demolishes his own home. Later, he encourages Chris to shoot him in the chest with live ammunition while wearing a bullet-proof vest.Davis’ mourning period concludes when reality rears its ugly head. First Davis is worked over by a jealous Carl but worse yet is Chris, who ends up in a coma after being beaten up for coming out. There’s more heartache for Davis when he learns that Julia was pregnant with another man’s child before she was killed.

I suppose all this was enough for Davis to transform into a mensch and that’s exactly what happens at the films end when he reconciles with both his father and mother-in-law and asks for their help in refurbishing a carousel, as a memorial for Julia.

Demolition is an original concept in that it treats the mourning process as a black comedy of sorts. But most of Davis’ actions, as he goes through his catharsis, are grating and unpleasant. The contrast between the unemotional Davis whom we meet right after the accident and the quirky man who needs to let out his anger in a big way, demolishing everything in his path, proves to be tiresome. Ultimately Davis’ farcical “blowing off steam” is too negative to appeal to the viewer who desperately would like to feel something for the film’s main character. Davis’ sudden transformation into a completely sensitive, caring guy is a welcome twist after all the negativity, but hardly exhibits much verisimilitude.

Gyllenhaal can do little with a script that makes its protagonist a running joke. And the aforementioned Watts is completely upstaged by the teenager with a much juicier part.

Demolition has garnered mixed reviews from critics. While the main characters internal arc reveals a true progression leading to significant change, there is a sense here that the protagonists core is not only unlikable but too unbelievable to be true.