People in movies grieve funny. By funny I mean “odd,” but also “ha ha.” That sounds off-putting, tasteless even, until you acknowledge that unrelieved gloom is not something for which we like to pay $12 a ticket. Anyway, the sad clown is a thing, and has been since Pagliacci.
So in “Demolition” we watch Jake Gyllenhaal play an emotionally constipated one-percenter named Davis Mitchell who, when the wife he thinks he didn’t love very much dies in a car accident, spirals off the fast track into behavior that’s meant to prompt nervous but genuine laughter. He smashes things and pulls the emergency brake on commuter trains; he disassembles his office computer, his refrigerator, his house. Unable to properly fall apart, he takes other things apart, just to see how it’s done. Warning: There is healing on the way. To its credit, the movie puts it off as long as possible.
It’s quite watchable, and the star gives his all to a role that seems to have been tailor-made for Robert Downey Jr. But Gyllenhaal is quieter and weirder; he moves to private rhythms whereas Downey generally puts on a show. What keeps you interested in “Demolition” is accompanying Davis as he solves the mystery of himself. What keeps you checking your watch is that the character’s not terribly interesting to begin with.
But there are professionals all over this thing, including director Jean-Marc Vallée, who with “Dallas Buyers Club” and the Reese Witherspoon drama “Wild” has proved his ability to take stories of spiky individuals and ever so slowly sand down the spikes. He makes feel-good movies about people who feel terrible. Davis’s problem is that he doesn’t feel much of anything; he’s a more functional, socialized version of Patrick Bateman in “American Psycho.” Gorgeous wife (Heather Lind appears, mostly in flashback, as Julia), slick modernist cube of a house in suburban Connecticut, profitable investment banking gig working for his father-in-law.
The latter is played by Chris Cooper, who I think we all agree by now is a treasure of American movies. His character, Fil, is a Manhattan money-man who comes undone when his daughter is killed in that opening car crash; we can tell it’s the first time something hasn’t really gone his way. And the behavior of his son-in-law, cool on the surface and increasingly bonkers beneath, drives Fil into rages of propriety. On one level, “Demolition” wants us to ponder whether there’s ever a “right” way to mourn.
On another, it just asks us to giggle at mental instability. The script by Bryan Sipe has Davis writing long, personal letters to the customer service department of a vending machine company after his bag of peanut M&Ms gets stuck in the dispenser in the hospital waiting room. Read in voice-over, they’re amusing enough, if an easy-peasy way to convey a character’s inner state without the bother of dramatizing it. Eventually the movie brings on Naomi Watts as Karen, an emotionally fragile woman with whom Davis will bond. Oh dear, and then double oh dear, because she has a foul-mouthed teenage son, Chris (Judah Lewis), who needs a father figure as messed up as he feels.
In other words, “Demolition” does what a lot of modern movies do, which is start somewhere intriguingly strange and then work their way back to normal. It features pleasantly glib dialogue that wears its subtext on its sleeve and scenes between the widower and the kid that, for the most part, resist cute. When Davis decides it’s time to take his house apart, the escalation — get the sledgehammer; no, get the bulldozer — taps into our universal destructo urge. If only it weren’t so symbolic.
The moral of this story is that the hero will learn to access his feelings at last and then life will be casseroles and carousels. Cue the credits and send the audience home reassured. Gyllenhaal pulls it off like the gifted performer he is. But something in him prefers the dark, and some of us prefer to watch him there.
Directed by Jean-Marc Vallée. Written by Bryan Sipe. Starring Jake Gyllenhaal, Naomi Watts, Chris Cooper, Judah Lewis. At Boston Common, Fenway, Kendall Square, suburbs. 100 minutes. R (language, some sexual references, drug use, disturbing behavior).