Dueling Critics: Demolition
Starring Jake Gyllenhaal, Naomi Watts & Chris Cooper
After his wife dies in a car crash, an investment banker (Jake Gyllenhaal) shows no emotion about the tragedy. He finds solace in dismantling things like refrigerators and bathroom stall doors, and writing long personal letters to a vending machine company in this whimsical (?) drama.
Fritz: Director Jean-Marc Vallee is coming off two films, The Dallas Buyers Club and Wild, that earned a lot of critical acclaim. Matthew McConaughey and Jared Leto won Oscars for The Dallas Buyers Club and Wild got nominations for Reese Witherspoon and Laura Dern. So, on paper, there's plenty of reason to be excited for his new film Demolition. But both of us left this one feeling disappointed, to say the least. What went wrong here?
David: All I can think of is that after two films with heavy subject matter, maybe Vallee thought a superficial seriocomedy – about loss and grief (!) – was lighter material. I don't know. This really boggles the mind because this movie is absolutely terrible. The main character is one of those quirky "movie"characters who only exists in the wacky imaginings of the filmmakers and has absolutely no semblance to any real motivations or emotions. What do you think went wrong?
Fritz: It's similar to what you said. Nothing he does feels real. People grieve in different ways, and there is a good movie to be made about the artificiality of public grieving and how we're expected to grieve in a way other people will understand. In the movie's first couple of minutes, there are some nice touches about how people still have to go through the motions of everyday, mundane life after a horrible loss (making breakfast, struggling with a vending machine, receiving awkward condolences from co-workers). But the two things that keep the plot moving - Gyllenhaal's new love of physically taking things apart and his relationship with a vending machine customer service rep (Naomi Watts) feel 100% false. And the relationship with Watts keeps feeling phony - it is possible to have a contrived meet-cute but the characters' relationship is compelling enough that you overlook it. When they talk, it seems like a collection of quirks talking at each other. And then Watts disappears for large chunks of the film's second half.
Do you think they could have salvaged the film's primary relationship? Or was it doomed to feel fake from the start?
David: I think it could have worked if Watts' character made a lick of sense, and if her character somehow experienced loss of her own which would be a bond between them.
Speaking of characters, the movie almost seemed to go out of its way to vilify the parents of the deceased (Chris Cooper and Polly Draper) as well as the deceased herself. There are a few third act revelations about Gyllenhaal's late wife that kind of let his character off the hook for being an uncaring prick. I found that to be grotesque and offensive. How about you?
Fritz: Well, like everything else in the movie, it could have possibly worked if handled differently. There's potentially interesting material to be mined about a marriage that wasn't working but ends prematurely in death, leaving the survivor in the awkward position of having to put on a public face about things when he/she knows the reality was quite different. The movie tries to present Gyllenhaal's behavior as "honesty," but yes, it's really just bizarre and mean at times. Cooper's character is portrayed as the bad guy, but most people would be annoyed if they were coping with the loss of a child and their son-in-law behaved like Gyllenhaal was behaving. Many people will hide their nastiness behind the excuse of "I'm just telling it like it is," and that's what Gyllenhaal's character seems like here. It's okay to have characters behave badly, but they have to behave badly in a recognizably human, believable way.
And yes, Watts' character is too movie-quirky to be believed. If the film insisted on Gyllenhaal striking up a relationship with a customer service rep, it could have handled it more organically. Here, she calls him out of the blue at 2 am. Why not just have them interact on the phone where he's airing out his grievances and through the course of their conversations, they discover a common bond (you're right - she needed to have experienced something similar so we could believe the connection).
David: It would not be professional for you or I to walk out on a movie we are reviewing, but boy, I really wanted to run for the exit about halfway through this picture. Demolition really is awful and, while it is only April, I just know this will make my year end worst list.