Cast: Jake Gyllenhaal, Naomi Watts, Chris Cooper, Judah Lewis
Director: Jean-Paul Vallée
Writer: Bryan Sipe
Sometimes when I watch a film that is clearly trying to say something profound and I find that I don’t understand it, I’ll often wonder whether the fault is with me or with the film. Is the film really saying nothing of value or am I just missing it because I haven’t thought enough about it? Other times however I know straight away that there is no need to ask myself that question. Either it possesses a genius that is self-evident or it has failed spectacularly. Demolition is one of the latter. It tries so hard to be deep and thoughtful that it completely misses the target and fails to reach any sort of a meaningful resolution. Through its attempts at providing social commentary, its blatantly obvious metaphors and its moments of forced emotion the film tries to present itself as being intelligent and insightful. Instead it achieves the exact opposite.
When his wife dies in a car crash Davis Mitchell (Jake Gyllenhaal) is rendered into a kind of stupor where he feels detached from everything around him. He finds himself unable to mourn for his wife and alarms everyone, especially his boss and father-in-law Phil (Chris Cooper), with his seeming aloofness and indifference. He is no longer focused on his work, he lies in his bed wide awake for hours on end and he speaks to everyone he comes across glibly and apathetically. When the vending machine at the hospital fails to produce a packet of M&Ms for him, he decides to complain to the machine’s company in a series of letters that detail the entire history of his relationship with his late-wife for context. The company’s head of customer services Karen Moreno (Naomi Watts) is moved by these letters and reaches out to Davis. With her help and that of her teenage son Chris (Judah Lewis) Davis attempts to build a new life for himself by destroying (or demolishing if you prefer) his old life.
It is clear that Demolition wants to say something deep and insightful about life and loss, new beginnings, the pursuit of happiness and the nature of change. However Sipe’s script tries far too hard at this and ends up becoming almost a parody of the kind of film it’s trying to be. The film wants to be quirkily unbelievable, in that it depicts two unlikely characters finding each other in an unlikely way, but ends up being wildly implausible. Davis speaks and writes as if every statement he makes is intended to be profoundly contemplative, almost as if he thinks he’s the first person to think any of these things, but just comes across as superficial and hollow. Some of his insights are downright laughable such as in one particular instance when he asks, “do you ever feel like everything is a metaphor?” (a question that is almost worthy of an ostentatious high school English essay). Any hint of complexity and perceptiveness gets lost in the film’s attempts to be cute and quirky, allowing cheap sentimentality to undermine and destroy whatever depth this film might have had.
In fairness to the film there were some moments that I enjoyed. One scene I enjoyed was when Davis meets Karen’s son for the first time and is met with a barrage of F-bombs. Davis puts Chris in his place by explaining to him that “fuck” is a fantastic word and that he undermines it by overusing it. Another scene I liked was where Davis and Chris find a gun that belongs to Karen’s boyfriend and decide to try it out. What follows is incredibly silly but it is also the funniest scene in the film. A few highlights however is not enough to save a film that had me rolling my eyes at its cutesy tone, one-dimensional characters and weak philosophy. There is nothing believable about how Davis and Karen become friends with one another and little chemistry to speak of. Chris is a decent character but is still a victim of the script with its embarrassingly hollow dialogue.
For a film that wants to be intuitive and meaningful, it takes a frustratingly safe approach to its concept. Instead of really trying to confront its themes of loss, sorrow and rebirth, it throws in some light comedy and half-baked philosophies that end up undermining the story. It wants to convey this fantastical feeling of wonderment and chance by having its two unlikely characters meet in an unlikely way and finding both of their lives to be richer for it, but it simply isn’t smart enough to pull it off. It is too farfetched, too schmaltzy and too senseless. The deeper meaning that the film thinks it is finding is clichéd and trite and falls short of anything close to profundity. Neither the story nor its characters feel real; therefore the emotions they are trying to inspire don’t feel real. The result is an aimless, overdone and empty film.