Demolition Jake Gyllenhaal, Naomi Watts, Chris Cooper. Directed by Jean-Marc Vallée. Rated R. Opens Friday.
“Everything is a metaphor,” world-weary investment banker and widower Davis Mitchell (Jake Gyllenhaal) says during one of his ponderous voiceovers in Demolition, and that’s exactly what’s wrong with this drama from director Jean-Marc Vallée (Wild, Dallas Buyers Club): If everything is a metaphor, then nothing is, and Demolition can’t decide on which deeply meaningful bit of symbolism is most important to Davis’ narcissistic journey of self-discovery. Instead, Vallée and screenwriter Bryan Sipe pile on the clumsy narrative devices, with Davis’ grief taking the form of a newfound interest in property destruction, an obsessive letter-writing campaign to a vending-machine company, a potential new relationship with the company’s melancholy customer-service representative (Naomi Watts), a mentorship to that representative’s troubled teen son (Judah Lewis) and other, more minor behavioral deviations.
Somewhere buried under there is a promising character study, about a man who can’t grieve properly because he didn’t care enough about the woman he’s supposed to be grieving. Davis was only married to Julia (Heather Lind) for a short time and didn’t know her very well, and he’s not nearly as demonstrative or proactive as Julia’s father (Chris Cooper)—who also happens to be Davis’ boss—in honoring her memory. Instead he composes rambling, pseudo-philosophical letters to Watts’ Karen, methodically dismantles his upscale suburban house and questions the emptiness of his existence in the manner of upper-class white-male protagonists in decades of self-consciously quirky indie movies past.
Gyllenhaal and Watts (who’s disappointingly underused) give strong performances that elevate Sipe’s mannered writing, but they fight a losing battle to give their characters real depth. As he did on the far superior Wild, Vallée (aided by editor Jay M. Glen) uses a fragmented style to depict flashbacks to Davis’ relationship with Julie and his mental instability, but the glimpses into the past lack the richness and illumination of the flashbacks in Wild. Davis becomes even less interesting and complex as the movie goes on, and a series of contrived third-act twists nearly destroy whatever subtlety the actors have brought to the story. Grieving is an intensely personal, individual process, but Demolition loses sight of those unique emotions in its strained efforts to turn Davis’ grief into a grand statement about human existence.