DVD Review: Demolition (2016)

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Director Jean-Marc Vallée came up with back-to-back aces with Dallas Buyers Club (2013) and Wild (2014). The former is a biopic of the late AIDS medication activist Ron Woodroof, while the latter is based on a memoir by author Cheryl Strayed. These films succeeded in large part from their respective lead performances: Matthew McConaughey won an Oscar for his portrayal of Woodroof, Reese Witherspoon was nominated for her portrayal of Strayed.

This year Vallée offers up Demolition, another character study but this one isn't based on actual events. Maybe that explains, at least in part, its lack of focus and absence of purpose. Not that Vallée, a filmmaker with many other credits to his name, necessarily needs a "true story" to make a great film. But coming after two fully-realized, deeply-felt depictions of actual people, maybe Demolition's story of investment banker Davis Mitchell (Jake Gyllenhaal) was too thin and whimsical to inspire the director.

At the outset, Davis loses his wife Julia (Heather Lind) in a devastating car accident. He works for her father, Phil (Chris Cooper), doing a job he maintains is not even that hard. He lucked into this high-paying corporate job, one that provides him a swanky office and plenty of respect from co-workers. Once his wife is gone, however, he finds relationship with father-in-law Phil tenuous at best. This dynamic is Demolition's most compelling element. Julia's parents have a plan to memorialize their daughter with an education-based foundation. Not only is Davis disinterested, his increasingly erratic behavior disturbs Julia's parents.

There was far more turmoil in Davis and Julia's marriage than is initially made apparent. As Davis learns things he may not have wanted to know, he begins a strange letter-writing campaign to a vending machine company. His package of M&Ms, purchased at the hospital just minutes after the news of Julia's passing, got stuck. He wants his $1.25 back. His long, confessional letters captivate the vending company's one and only customer service agent, Karen (Naomi Watts). As Davis and the cloyingly eccentric pothead Karen begin a relationship, Vallée's storytelling focus quickly unravels.

As Karen's overbearing boyfriend Carl (C.J. Wilson) and her teen son (Judah Lewis) become entangled in Davis' life, it becomes less and less clear what Demolition is trying to say. Examining Davis' peculiar methods of grieving (which, in addition to his diary-like letters to an initially faceless customer service department, include disassembling things like coffee machines and bathroom stall doors) make him a potentially interesting character. But the normally incisive Gyllenhaal loses inspiration quickly, delivering a stilted performance that never lets us inside.

Watching him struggle to define his character in Demolition, I was reminded of a more emotionally fulfilling film in which Gyllenhaal starred that explored some similar themes: Moonlight Mile (2002). Writer-director Brad Siberling drew a much sharper performance out of a much younger Gyllenhaal as a young man dealing with the untimely passing of his significant other (as well as the future of his relationship with her parents). Almost no one went to see either of these movies, so for those who haven't seen either I highly recommend Moonlight Mile.

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Chaz Lipp writes for The Morton Report.

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