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Review: Despite Jake Gyllenhaal’s strong support, ‘Demolition’ fails to stand up as an involving film

Jake Gyllenhaal and Heather Lind in "Demolition."

Jake Gyllenhaal and Heather Lind in “Demolition.”

(Anne Marie Fox / Fox Searchlight via AP)
Los Angeles Times Film Critic

“Demolition” is a well-meaning misfire, terribly earnest but unconvincing for all of that. A film more pleased with itself than it has reason to be, it does provide a chance to watch the always-involving Jake Gyllenhaal at work.

Gyllenhaal plays Davis Mitchell, a wealthy Manhattan investment banker trapped in a narrative — the unraveling and recovery of a life — that is both more obvious and less interesting than it might be.

Some of this likely can be traced to a script by Bryan Sipe prominent enough to be placed on the Black List of best unproduced screenplays in 2007, a piece of writing that unfortunately fell into the hands of director Jean-Marc Vallée.

Though Vallée’s work, including “Dallas Buyers Club” and “Wild,” is very actor friendly (Matthew McConaughey and Jared Leto won Oscars for the former and Reese Witherspoon was nominated for the latter), his sensibility tends to overstatement, definitely not a good idea here.

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Married to the beautiful Julia (Heather Lind) and living large in the New York suburbs, Davis Mitchell turns out to be the latest in a long line of wealthy folks who find to their shock and amazement that money does not insulate them from the pain and vicissitudes of life.

In truth, however, one of the interesting things about Gyllenhaal’s performance is that in its brief opening segment, when he’s being driven to work by his wife and given a hard time for not fixing a leaking refrigerator, he conveys a kind of detached sadness that, at least initially, piques our interest.

Then all hell breaks loose. In an instant Julia loses her life and nothing Davis’ well-meaning, briefly glimpsed parents or his blustering, master of the universe father-in-law Phil (the reliable Chris Cooper) can do makes any difference.

It’s no surprise the death of Julia (who periodically reappears in wistful flashbacks) turns Davis into a dead man walking himself, just going through the motions of his life, but this state is not compelling to watch. No doubt sensing this, “Demolition” ups the ante several ways, with unsatisfying results across the board.

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It all starts the day of Julia’s death when, wandering the corridors of the hospital she’s been brought to, Davis puts money in a vending machine, pushes a button but does not get the Peanut M&M’s he’s paid for.

Frustrated and falling apart, Davis obsessively writes a series of long, stream of consciousness letters to the Champion Vending Machine company, both asking for his money back and compulsively laying out his life story.

In whatever time is left over from all this writing, Davis takes literally a chance remark made by his father-in-law to the effect that “to fix something you have to take it apart” and proceeds to physically take apart everything he can get his hands on, starting with that recalcitrant refrigerator.

More than that, when Davis wanders past some construction workers tearing down a house, he sledgehammers everything in sight, as clear a case of a metaphor being taken too far as you ever (or never) want to see.

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While all this “demolition” is taking place, Davis gets a highly unlikely 2 a.m. phone call from Karen Moreno (Naomi Watts), a customer-service representative from Champion Vending who clearly takes her work seriously.

Karen, it turns out, has been touched by the honesty in Davis’ letters, and though she knows 2 a.m. phone calls are not recommended job behavior, she can’t help but reach out.

Davis connects to something in her as well and, though “Demolition” drags it out, a meeting and even a mutually beneficial friendship are easy to anticipate. As is a bonding between Davis and single mom Karen’s inevitably difficult 15-year-old son Chris (Judah Lewis).

Always an interesting actor to encounter, Gyllenhaal works hard here, but the truth is that Davis is less a real person in despair than a construct in search of a story. There is little moving or even surprising about his tale as it’s presented here, and everyone’s good intentions can’t make up for that.

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‘Demolition’

MPAA rating: R, for language, some sexual references, drug use and disturbing behavior

Running time: 1 hour, 47 minutes

Playing: In general release

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kenneth.turan@latimes.com


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