“Everything is a metaphor.” A cut, a beat, then he repeats, whispering to himself — “metaphor.” This was not the first time during the course of “Demolition” that I rolled my eyes, and it certainly wasn’t the last, but it was perhaps the most emblematic. The latest from Canadian director Jean-Marc Vallée (“Wild” and “Dallas Buyers Club”), “Demolition” is a midlife crisis comedy-drama burdened by its overly clear metaphorical premise.
In “Demolition,” Davis Mitchell (Jake Gyllenhaal, “Nightcrawler”) is an investment banker whose wife, Julia (Heather Lind, “Mistress America”) is tragically killed in a car accident. While Julia’s parents are devastated, particularly her father Phil (Chris Cooper, “Adaptation.”), Davis seems to be all right, returning to work very soon after. But as Phil recovers from his grief, Davis seems to descend into it. He writes a letter to a vending machine company complaining about a stuck bag of M&M’s, which quickly devolves into a series of rambling confessionals about his former life with Julia. The customer service representative, Karen Moreno (Naomi Watts, “Birdman”), is a single mom who smokes pot. Concerned about his letters, she begins to develop a non-romantic relationship with Davis as she drifts away from her boss, whom she is dating.
The key relationship in the film, though, is between Davis and Karen’s son, Chris (Judah Lewis, “Point Break”), a rebellious tween who smokes, yet chides his mother for the same. Chris is stumbling through adolescence and finding his identity — Davis, whom Chris initially despises, comes to be his trusted confidant and counsel. Together, they become a team of demolishers. Davis finds that the only way to fix his life is to break everything in it (except, of course, his car and bedroom, because those are the important possessions for Davis. Can you read my sarcasm?), which can either happen by high-powered tools or by careful deconstruction, separating an object into all of its parts. Davis finds joy in the wreckage and pain. The audience will not.
The screenplay by Bryan Sipe (“The Choice”) is awkward and clunky. In fact, it is like this paragraph — there are sentences with words in them that fit, but — there are no more positive attributes. More often than not, the sentences do not work together. Sipe uses the letters as narration instead of using dialogue. This is a cop-out. The film is billed as a comedy-drama but it is not funny. It is not very dramatic either. The events in the film are melodramatic, but there is no emotion.
Vallée, in his prior two films, both of which were major Oscar contenders, established a visual storytelling style. They were subjective, in which visions blended into the screen, memories intruded on scenes, and a story was told by the sum of its parts. For “Wild,” a film especially tied to memory, this proved to be an adept technique, albeit with a side effect of confusion. Here, though, Vallée loses his grip. The impressionist blend, for which Terrence Malick must be an influence, fails to unite all the moving parts of a needlessly complex story. While the film never drags (in fact, I was surprised by little I was bored by it), some transitions and images feel jarring rather than meaningful.
But whatever can be said about Vallée’s visual style, he is certainly an actor’s director. In fact, “Dallas Buyers Club” netted two acting Oscars and “Wild” earned two more nominations. Thankfully, Vallée saved this film from misery by assembling a terrific cast, especially Cooper, one of the finest actors living. Watts and Gyllenhaal aren’t doing their best work here; their characters’ emotions are infinitely complex and they come close, but they never quite reach the finish line.
The film is simply never compelling. Rather than focus on Davis’s inner turmoil, it turns to his recovery. But light is only valuable insofar as it prevents darkness; without understanding what Davis is feeling, we can never know why his acts of destruction, and his compassion for Chris, matter. Plus, because Davis’s life is so seeped in privilege, it’s impossible for us common folk to find solace in his decisions. Who among us can cope with loss by destroying all of our possessions and then, presumably, rebuying them? Vallée, it seems, wanted to make a film that can fit into midlife crisis film craze of the mid-1990s (think “American Beauty” or “Office Space”) but his twenty-first century update just doesn’t do anything new. Or interesting.