The hero of the new dramedy Demolition at one point muses, “For some reason, everything’s becoming a metaphor.” Boy, you can say that again. The clodhopping symbolism of Bryan Sipe’s laughably by-the-textbook but utterly clueless script spells the kind of movie that casually moviegoing Spencer’s Gift shoppers may love but that will make literary-minded cineastes want to claw their eyes out.
Demolition asks us to expend endless pity on a Rich Straight White Guy or, put another way, an incredible a-hole who apparently didn’t love his recently deceased wife, didn’t even like her, in fact hates her, and then (spoiler alert) realizes he loved her at least a little, The End. How screwed up is a wish-fulfillment fantasy about your spouse dying to teach you a lesson about living? By laying out his story in this way, Sipe (The Choice) squanders any sympathy too early, and recovers too little too late. Director Jean-Marc Vallée can’t do much to salvage the material, though Demolition at least can claim some smart editing (the category in which he got an Oscar nomination for Dallas Buyers Club).
The Rich Straight White Guy in question is investment banker Davis C. Mitchell (Jake Gyllenhaal), who works for his father-in-law, Phil (Chris Cooper) and thus is primed for supreme awkwardness following the death of Davis's wife Julia. Sipe stocks up his self-consciously script-y narrative with cheap pop psychology and absurd only-in the-movies behavior. This is the kind of movie in which a leaking refrigerator the protagonist hadn’t taken care of for his wife prompts him to begin literally disassembling everything around him (the fridge, the bathroom stall at work) because—wow, realization time!—he needs to deconstruct his own life to understand how to put it back together again.
This is the kind of movie in which the protagonist has a vending-machine fail minutes after his wife dies and so begins a therapeutic customer-service correspondence, which in turn leads to romance with the customer-service rep (Naomi Watts’ Karen) and a surrogate fatherhood to this single mom’s son (Judah Lewis’ Chris). This is the kind of movie in which the protagonist has an emotional moment on a train and pulls the emergency brake, later explaining to authorities, “All I can say is it felt like a legitimate emergency.”
This is the kind of movie in which the newly widowed protagonist explains his situation thusly: “Massive head trauma. Car accident. Pass the salt.” This is the kind of movie in which the protagonist accidentally steps on a nail, prompting screams that turn into laughs with joy because he can finally feel something again. This is the kind of movie that has its protagonist act increasingly wacky before making prominent use of Heart’s “Crazy on You.”
This is the kind of movie that throws in an supporting character’s outing and gay-bashing victimization as a halfhearted subplot. This is the kind of movie that could fairly be described as both terminally cute and insufferable grief porn. Due to Matthew McConaughey and Jared Leto’s wins for Dallas Buyers Club and Reese Witherspoon and Laura Dern’s nominations for Wild, Vallée has gotten a reputation for directing actors to Oscars or at least a shot at them. But the just-plain-awful Demolition doesn’t do poor Jake Gyllenhaal any favors. Sorry, kid, no Oscar for you this year. Better luck next time.