Director Jean-Marc Vallée is starting to tell interesting stories, even if he’s still taking relatively few chances.
“Demolition” is cluttered with a spitfire barrage of themes in its final act, but most of the film marks a big step in the right direction for the purveyor of awards-friendly flicks.
For starters, it skips the over the based-on-a-true-story hangups of his last two films — “Dallas Buyers Club” and “Wild” — and exists without messy “faithfulness to the source” issues, nor the unforgivably bad dialogue that plagued those efforts. Nobody sat down and chatted with Oprah for an hour about being their best selves to make this happen.
Similarly, Vallée is doing heavier lifting with his protagonist: A rich, white investment banker, Davis Mitchell (Jake Gyllenhaal), spends about 90 minutes reverting back to his adolescence after the untimely death of wife Julia (Heather Lind). He’s as flawed as Matt McConaughey’s Ron Woodruff or Reese Witherspoon’s Cheryl Strayed — just endowed with 1-percenter-level resources to indulge a grieving process that is every bit a teenage wasteland as any midlife crisis.
Davis’ silent, sparsely emotive mourning period is meant to feel unsettling — he never understood his wife and cops to his penchant for not listening, so he finds it difficult to cry and play the part of the widower everyone expects of him. It takes a series of letters to a vending machine company and a late-night call from customer service rep Karen (Naomi Watts) to draw out Davis’ soul searching.
“Demolition” excels at this point because it undermines the expectation of Davis and Karen hooking up. Davis instead indulges in childlike daydreams and the urge to literally and figuratively deconstruct his life — from the leaky fridge his late wife urged him to fix to virtually every appliance in his ultra-modern home.
Is it cloying? Sure, but at least the film owns up to it: “Everything has become a metaphor,” Davis admits, every bit of subtext rendered without a hint of subtlety.
In his teen-with-an-appetite-for-destruction phase, Davis is far more interested in hanging out with Karen’s son Chris (Judah Lewis), who has time on his hands while suspended from school for using a firecracker during a social studies presentation.
Davis’ father-in-law Phil (Chris Cooper), who is also Davis’ boss, naturally has his frustrations boil over watching Davis goof around, dismantle the office bathroom stalls and hang around a new woman and her son just weeks after the funeral.
The story is affecting, but very little of it is visually compelling. Aside from a few illusions Davis experiences — at one point he envisions himself as an airport guard taking on a terrorist — the remainder could be told as a foley-heavy radio play chronicling Davis’ tinkering projects and strained relationships. His letter-writing to Karen results in a mountain of voiceover, too, making it difficult to rectify the glaring imbalance between showing and telling, undermining an otherwise solidly paced and endearing first hour.
For their parts, Cooper and Watts are beyond-gifted actors who know this is not their show to steal; they, along with Lewis, are the few bastions of nuance this film has. And as a lead, Gyllenhaal also rejects the allure of going over the top. It’s refreshing, but it’s also not all that memorable.
“Demolition” may have the pedigree of the emotionally wrenching subjects Vallée is known for, but it holds back and leaves “bringing down the house” as a plot point rather than an audience objective.
“Demolition” is rated R for language and drug use..Running time: One hour, 40 minutes. Three stars out of five.