Gyllenhaal breaks down, rebuilds in offbeat comedy ‘Demolition’

July 22, 2024 | (Jason Fraley)

WASHINGTON — He directed Matthew McConaughey and Jared Leto to Oscars in the human rights tale “Dallas Buyers Club” (2013) before landing Reese Witherspoon another Oscar nomination in the hiking journey “Wild” (2014).

Now, filmmaker Jean-Marc Vallée directs Jake Gyllenhaal in the unique project “Demolition.”

It follows Manhattan investment banker Davis (Gyllenhaal) who has an odd way of grieving the recent death of his wife Julia (Heather Lind). While his in-laws Phil (Chris Cooper) and Margot (Polly Draper) are heartbroken over the loss of their daughter, Davis shows virtually no emotion at all.

His bizarre way of coping is dismantling appliances and carefully organizing the parts on the floor. This fascination with the inner-workings of machinery causes him to write a series of obsessive complaint letters to a vending machine company, catching the eye of pothead customer service rep Karen (Naomi Watts). Gradually, Davis grows closer to Karen’s misfit teenage son, Chris (Judah Lewis), teaching him the proper use of the “F” word and coaching him through tough growing pains.

Will these encounters help Davis to heal? Will he make peace with his father-in-law, who’s also his boss? Will he support his wife’s memorial scholarship? Will he be able to show any emotion at all?

Rather than a serious drama like Krzysztof Kieslowski’s “Three Colors: Blue” (1993), “Demolition” picks a tough needle to thread: a quirky comedy about death that seeks sympathy for a grieving widower who doesn’t grieve the traditional way. But it is in this offbeat nature that the film finds its charm, making us laugh out loud with comedic timing, then whacking us with heavy emotions.

If anyone could pull it off it’s Gyllenhaal, who remains one of the most underrated actors of the 21st century. Find me another star with as much versatility over the past 15 years: hallucinating criminals (“Donnie Darko”), macho troops (“Jarhead”), closeted cowboys (“Brokeback Mountain”), time travelers (“Source Code”), obsessive journalists (“Zodiac”), pharmacy salesmen (“Love & Other Drugs”), gritty cops (“End of Watch”), twitchy detectives (“Prisoners”), creepy paparazzi (“Nightcrawler”), tortured doppelgängers (“Enemy”) and punch-drunk boxers (“Southpaw”).

In “Demolition,” Gylleenhaal straps a risky project on his back and daringly carries it to the finish line, screaming Heart’s “Crazy on You” in the car, swinging from the rafters of a garage, bobbing to earbud music on the New York subways and taking a sledgehammer to his most pristine possessions.

The performance plays out like a comedy version of Michael Douglas in “Falling Down” (1993) mixed with a little Ron Livingston destroying the fax machine in “Office Space” (1999) and Richard Dreyfuss dumping a mound of dirt in his living room in “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” (1977).

Still, the best comparison is Kevin Spacey in “American Beauty” (1999), which similarly cast Cooper as a father figure and whose director later worked with Gyllenhaal on “Jarhead.” But there are also several important similarities to Spacey’s character, Lester Burnham, as Gyllenhaal smiles in the face of death, smashes his corporate existence and helps adolescents struggling with suburban identities.

This adolescent subplot proves that young Judah Lewis has a bright future ahead of him, tackling very complex emotions with simple props in a mirror. His grappling with the “f word” is far more realistic than the over-the-top cursing children in last year’s remake of “National Lampoon’s Vacation” (2015). All the while, Gyllenhaal mines real romantic chemistry with Lewis’ on-screen mother, Naomi Watts, who recalls the best qualities of Audrey Tautou’s “Amelie” (2001) in her distant, anti-social flirtations.

Screenwriter Bryan Sipe is also one to watch, finding the humor in human nature right from the opening scene: “Stop repeating what I say just to make it sound like you’re listening.” The script then subverts our expectations by giving Peanut M&Ms the same level of importance as a hospital death. Its comedic timing is best on display in Davis’ outside-the-box interpretations of inappropriate situations, such as his delayed response to his father-in-law about a bar’s expensive cocktails.

Sipe’s script also boasts a refreshing, postmodern self-awareness as Gyllenhaal narrates his letter: “It’s a metaphor. I’m the uprooted tree. No, I’m the storm that uprooted the tree. No, I’m the cold front that caused the storm that uprooted the tree — nah, that’s too much,” crumpling the paper.

In this way, Sipe reins in his own attempts at metaphor, giving us just enough without going overboard. His humanistic charm most recently gave some refreshing punch to his adaptation of an otherwise standard Nicholas Sparks novel “The Choice” (2016). But like “The Choice,” the script starts stronger than it ends, giving into some cliches down the stretch. While some of the twists work, others take the easy way out, building to an Act Three resolution that leaves loose ends dangling.

This will no doubt send audiences out of the theater polarized. Plot-orientated folks may feel cheated out of neat closure, while those with more thematic tastes will find the symbols fitting. The vibe isn’t for everybody, but in an age of so many spinoffs, it refreshingly marches to the beat of its own drum.

Hats off to Vallée, who delivers another compelling character study filled with directorial flair. Like the flashes of Laura Dern in “Wild,” we again get acid flashbacks of the deceased. Background characters move in reverse motion while Gyllenhaal moves forward, symbolizing his going against the crowd. Even in more patient moments of mise-en-scene, the One World Trade Center stands proudly in the background as other decaying buildings undergo controlled demolitions across the river.

In our post-9/11 world where humanity seems stuck in a numb, apathetic state of post traumatic stress, “Demolition” sings with allegory. There is a degree of thematic originality here — the breaking down and rebuilding of objects — that damn near approaches transcendent. Aren’t we all just human beings who tear ourselves down, only to rebuild piece by piece? Isn’t every good character study an investigation into what makes us tick? Isn’t demolition necessary to find what matters in the rubble?

Life, like the most compelling movies, is a glorious gift with some assembly required.


Jason Fraley

Hailed by The Washington Post for “his savantlike ability to name every Best Picture winner in history," Jason Fraley began at WTOP as Morning Drive Writer in 2008, film critic in 2011 and Entertainment Editor in 2014, providing daily arts coverage on-air and online.

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