Directed by Jean-Marc Vallée
Starring Jake Gyllenhaal, Naomi Watts, Chris Cooper, Judah Lewis, Heather Lind
Film Review by Kieran Freemantle
On the surface, the comedy-drama Demolition has the qualities to be a great film. It stars the likes of Jake Gyllenhaal, Naomi Watts and Chris Cooper and was directed by Jean-Marc Vallée - the man who brought us Dallas Buyers Club and Wild. But those talents are not enough to salvage a terrible screenplay and a repulsive main character.
Davis Mitchell (Gyllenhaal) seemingly lives a perfect lifestyle - he is a successful investment banker, has a beautiful wife and has a nice modern house outside New York City. But after his wife - Julia (Heather Lind) - dies in a car accident, Davis is unable to process his grief, he cannot cry, he goes back to work and his only outlet is writing letters to a vending machine company after trying to use a faulty machine. These letters grab the attention of customer service rep Karen Moreno (Watts) who sets out to befriend the lonely man.
Demolition sets out to be a tale of misfits coming together and helping each other in their time of crisis - decent enough territory for any comedy or drama and many indie films have done that. But Demolition is a film that is trying too hard to be quirky as it tries to mix the drama and comedy. It is a film trying to push as many indie buttons as possible: the lead character is going through a tragedy and reacts with strange behaviour - some unconventional friendship being formed particularly between an adult and a teenager, a single mum struggling with a tearaway child and a teenager with sexuality issues. There is no cliché left unturned during the run time, making the 100 minutes feel like an age. These story elements could easily work on their own and they have been handled much better in other films.
The film has a great cast and there is no denying their talents. But the writing lets them down. Gyllenhaal has given some great performances over his career but his character is so unlikeable that it is hard to even engage with the film. It is confounded more so because Gyllenhaal has played a vile character in Nightcrawler, a film where the protagonist did some appalling actions but it was still a compelling film because of what he was doing and why. The hook of Demolition is fine; exploring how a man is unable to feel anything after his wife’s death - despite how much he tries and the letters to the vending machine company is a cathartic experience for him. But Davis does not act anything resembling human - Davis burying himself in work and writing the letters is all well and good, but when Karen makes contact, Davis turns into a full blown stalker doing everything he can to find her.
Davis also acts like a total jerk towards his father-in-law. Chris Cooper's Phil is meant to be unlikeable - being an aggressive banker - but it was a lot easier to sympathise with Phil then it was Davis. As well as dealing with his grief of losing his daughter, Phil has to handle a selfish man-child who has no respect for Julia's memory or even has any basic social skills. Davis was a character who deserved a big slap.
Despite Vallée's clear ability to work with actors, Demolition felt like it came from a first time filmmaker, someone who just left film school and got backing from mummy and daddy and thinks they are a lot smarter than they really are. It's a film trying to be profound and failing miserably. There are attempts of being philosophical with Davis saying he sees everything as a metaphor and he has to take everything apart to see how they work. But it is all a means to nothing as Davis resets his life. Vallée also felt compelled to use arty vignette - jumping back in time to see the relationship between Davis and Julia or simply editing the film like a Quentin Tarantino and Guy Ritchie romp - deliberately telling events out of order. Other attempts of being arty include Karen's son Chris (Judah Lewis) locking himself in a bathroom playing with a gun before Chris and Davis get to play with it.
There are moments of very overdone dialogue, particularly between Gyllenhaal and Watts as their characters discuss their relationship and what it is meant to be. There is also the occasional moment that raises a chuckle. One of them is when Davis gives Chris (Judah Lewis) advice on how to use the f-word. But these moments are few and far between to redeem the film. Yet another scene of Davis dancing around New York causes Spider-Man 3 flashbacks.
Demolition is like being trapped in a lift with people you do not like or even want to be around. There is no way to feel anything for Davis - despite what he has been through. It is a slog of a film that its actors cannot redeem despite their best efforts.
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