Actors love directors whose movies win Oscar nominations. Reese Witherspoon snagged a Best Actress Oscar nomination for Wild, directed by Jean-Marc Vallee. The next year, Matthew McConaughey and Jaret Leto both copped statuettes for the same director’s follow-up, Dallas Buyers Club. That’s the only possible explanation for Jake Gyllenhaal and Naomi Watts taking on Vallee’s newest: the unfocused, clumsy and jerry-rigged Demolition.
The determinedly quirky drama stars Jake Gyllenhaal as an investment banker with apparently everything going for him: high-paying job, beautiful and wealthy wife, hot car, terrific house in the best neighborhood, health, a ridiculously expensive wardrobe and, oh, yeah, the face and bod of Jake Gyllenhaal. It turns out that our hero is soulless, utterly disconnected, bored silly and aching. While wallowing in white privilege, he loses his wife (Heather Lind) in a violent car crash. He begins to act irrationally, disassembling clocks and refrigerators. Later, he pays a construction crew to let him help as they dismantle houses. We’re talking about a guy who wants to sledgehammer his posh, privileged life but is so emotionally constipated that he can’t manage to squeeze out a whimper or tear, let alone a howl of rage. In fact, he wonders aloud if he ever loved his wife, and her loss only shoves him deeper into a state of somnambulism, occasionally punctuated by weirder and weirder antics.
When a hospital vending machine eats his money and deprives him of his peanut M&Ms—no, we didn’t make this up; it’s the invention of screenwriter Bryan Sipe (who adapted Nicholas Sparks’ The Choice)—Gyllenhaal begins writing wacky letters of complaint laced with middle-of-the-night confessionals that ought to provoke a Champion Vending Machine customer service rep (Naomi Watts) to toss them into a file marked “Nutjobs.” But the movie sweats and strains to get us to try to relate to a guy who stops shaving his chest as a sign or rebellion and who mutters things like, “Do you ever feel like everything is a metaphor?“
No, we haven’t ever felt that, but we know pseudo-profound dialogue when we hear it. Unlike the audience, Watts’ underdeveloped and borderline dimwit character finds herself moved to tears, not provoked to run like hell. After reading four or five of his letters, she and Gyllenhaal launch into an inexplicable, unconvincing relationship that begins with her phoning him to sympathize (“Do you have anyone to talk to?”) and continues with him pretty much stalking her at her workplace and at home. Somehow, invading the life of this drab, pot-smoking single mom and her sexually confused teen son (Judah Lewis, excellent) provide just the sort of soul-shaking emotional breakthrough for which this self-absorbed douche has been hungering. They go running after birds on the beach. They turn a couch into a fort, a castle. Bring on the healing.
Despite welcome flashes of dark humor, Demolition is phony and shot through with clichés. The admirably committed Gyllenhaal is great to watch when he unravels, as he demonstrated in Nightcrawler. But here, without a framework and without a shred of screen chemistry between Gyllenhaal and Watts, he’s delivering the only juice, the reason to suffer through an exercise in fake meaning and substance. Seriously, who needs the grief?