Jean-Marc Vallée has become a bit of a directorial superstar in recent years, garnering rave reviews and some serious Oscar buzz for his work on movies such as Wild, Dallas Buyers Club and The Young Victoria. His films usually follow tested individuals, seeking something a bit more than what’s been put on their plate at the dinner table of life. His latest offering, Demolition, is something a bit different, but still a little bit the same. The result can be summed up with one word:
I went to see this movie on a hunch that it may be somewhat enjoyable. I generally enjoy watching both Jake Gyllenhaal (Nightcrawler is the best movie to come out of 2014, and if you think otherwise, it’s only because you’re wrong) and Naomi Watts (Mulholland Drive is on my Desert Island Flicks list), so the prospect of seeing these two stellar talents working together was quite exciting to me. Imagine my consternation and regret to find that their talents were being slightly wasted in a movie that isn’t quite as deserving of their time as it could’ve potentially been.
Gyllenhaal puts in a heartbreaking performance in Demolition as Davis Mitchell, an investment banker who survives the horrific car crash that kills his wife. His frustration with the world, and a seeming lack of mourning from him over his wife’s death, takes shape in the form of numerous long-winded confessional letters he begins writing to a vending machine company’s customer service department. This department is made up of only one person, Naomi Watts’ Karen Moreno, a mother who takes to reading his letters while sitting in her bathtub and smoking weed (as you do). Coupled with writing the letters, Davis spontaneously takes to meticulously dismantling, or just outright smashing, various objects both at home and work, including: his fridge, his work computer, a toilet stall, an espresso machine, the light fittings in his in-laws’ bathroom, someone else’s house, and eventually, his own house, which he attempts to level with a bulldozer.
Sounds like a real quirky affair, right? The type of thing that should star Adam Sandler, bumbling around, pretending to be a person? Yeah, that’s pretty much it. It’s supposed to be eccentric and make you like the people you’re watching for the fact they’re so fabulously idiosyncratic, but it doesn’t ever seem to go just that extra little distance to tug at your heart strings for anyone other than Davis. There’s too little attention to detail attached to the people in Davis’ life, no sense of closure in the debacle between Karen and her teenage son, played by relative newcomer Judah Lewis, or in the character arc for the boy himself as an individual, who is shown briefly to be struggling with his sexuality in a not-quite-resolved subplot. Only Davis’ emotional quandary seems resolved by the end, which I found to be somewhat frustrating. Both Watts’ and Lewis’ characters were perfectly likeable people in their own odd way, the kind of mother and son I’d want to live next door to, and occasionally yell at for playing Heart’s greatest hits too loudly. Sadly their stories became a little lost in the ether of Davis’ destruction of his outwardly perfect existence.
Several years ago, Community writer and creator Dan Harmon codified the basic storytelling process of movies and TV shows. He managed to reduce almost every character arc down to 8 crucial points:
- A character is in a zone of comfort
- But they want something
- They enter an unfamiliar situation
- Adapt to it
- Get what they wanted
- Pay a heavy price for it
- Then return to their familiar situation
- Having changed.
Davis certainly does go through this arc, but unfortunately, it just doesn’t seem like Vallée quite cracked the formula with this one.
People who have read my previous movie reviews on The Last Round will know that I don’t normally give anything similar to a star rating for movies. This time is no different, unfortunately, but for different reasons. Honestly I was left feeling a bit 50/50 on this one: the actors did their absolute best with what they were given by Vallée, and put in wonderful performances, but it almost felt like a chunk of the movie’s heart was missing.
Maybe it’s stuck in the hospital vending machine, inside that pesky bag of Peanut M&Ms. Just maybe.
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