Demolition: A Writer’s Quirk-Off Fantasy, by Tyler Smith
Jean-Marc Vallee’s Demolition is a movie of such unrelenting quirkiness that all other character beats, story milestones, or emotional tones that it might be attempting are pushed violently aside, leaving the audience with a collection of gimmicks that call themselves a movie. At every turn, the film’s insufferable preciousness made me roll my eyes, grit my teeth, and desperately wish I was doing something else. After watching the film, I had to sit in L.A. traffic for an hour, but I wasn’t in a bad mood. How could I be? Because, as frustrating as gridlock can be, hey, at least I wasn’t watching Demolition anymore.
How could this film go so wrong? It’s directed by the man that brought us Wild in 2014, a deeply moving and effective film. It stars Jake Gyllenhaal, Naomi Watts, and Chris Cooper; actors who often specialize in playing wounded and desperate characters. It has a strong premise, in which a callous financial executive loses his wife and starts to deconstruct the life (figuratively and literally) he so meticulously built for himself, reconnecting with his fellow man in the process.
So, with all of these things going for it, how did Demolition manage to be the worst film I’ve seen in years?
While ultimately the director is to blame, it is only insofar as he allowed the script by Bryan Sipe to explore these emotional issues with such blatant inauthenticity. This script manages to be both bafflingly insipid and smugly self-satisfied at the same time. The writer truly seems to think that he’s blowing our minds, as he forces his grieving protagonist into behaviors meant to evoke clarity of thought and purity of motive. At one point in the film, the main character is described by another as always telling the truth. While the film up to that point has done nothing to indicate that this is, indeed, the protagonist’s defining characteristic, to have someone simply declare this makes it clear that this is how the writer wants us to perceive the main character.
I saw nothing of the sort here. Played by Jake Gyllenhaal with the eyes of a wounded puppy, our main character, Davis, doesn’t seem to actually have a defining characteristic. He bounces around to whatever the writer needs him to be. At one moment, he is emotionally numb, while in the next he is manic. In one scene, he is self destructive, while in another, he seems to have had a deep philosophical breakthrough. None of these contradictions are necessarily wrong; plenty of film characters are so ignorant of themselves that they don’t know which self to be in certain situations. Characters like this can be very effective, if written and played just right. But as Bryan Sipe conceives him, he is no more than a vessel for conflicting quirks and gimmicks. I feel that a writer owes his creations more than to simply use them as a means to display his own cleverness.
And that is most certainly what we are dealing with here. Sipe uses key human experiences like marriage, sex, death, grief, and reconnection to demonstrate his own ability to look at the world through a different lens – a better lens – than the rest of us. Scenes that should allow the characters to learn and grow in an organic way are steered instead towards the writer’s desire to impress. In doing so, the emotions and actions displayed by the characters seemed so dishonest, so inhuman, that I found myself wondering not only if the writer had any experience with marriage and loss, but if he’d had any contact with other human beings at all.
As Davis processes the loss of his wife, he loses some change to a faulty vending machine. Rather than simply chalk it up as a loss, he instead decides to put pen to paper and write out a letter to the vending machine company, explaining his situation and demanding his $1.25 back. As he does so, the letter gets longer and longer as Davis incorporates elements of his life and his past. He sends the letter, and soon finds himself writing another. And another. The letters are clearly some kind of catharsis for him, so he keeps sending them. And while I’m the first to admit that grief can make people do some strange things, this doesn’t seem like something any person would do in life. It is something that a writer would have a character do as a seemingly-effective way of incorporating exposition and voiceover into a film.
Right and left, the story develops in a way that is completely artificial. One can practically see the writer’s notes on the screen, making sure there’s a new development every seven minutes or so that ups the stakes. Soon, Davis is contacted by Karen, the customer service representative at the vending machine company. Played by Naomi Watts – trying desperately to find some kind of core in a character that doesn’t have one – the customer service rep connects with Davis and the two develop a friendship, with Davis especially making a connection with Karen’s son, Chris. The kid is in need of a father figure, you see, because he’s 15 and struggling with his sexuality and could use some guidance and Davis is a truth teller and he may be a bad influence, but maybe that’s what the kid needs, and it turns out they actually are learning from each other…
And so on.
With each new plot development, the movie feels like it is trying to take on more and more weight. Or, to be more precise, it feels like the film is borrowing more and more from other movies. The letter writing is right out of About Schmidt. The office drone seeking clarity and direction is from American Beauty (and even a little bit of Office Space). The relationship with the kid echoes About a Boy. There are many more examples, but to write any more about Demolition would be to repeat myself.
This is a terrible movie. Its obvious manipulation is so poorly-executed as to be insulting to the viewer. It is a waste of the time and talent of all involved. It isn’t worth seeing or talking about. Halfway through, I wanted to walk out. I wish I had.