In Demolition, Jake Gyllenhaal stars as a grief-stricken man who turns to disassembling everything around him in the hopes of understanding his sorrow and his late wife. It is a solid premise, but the Jean-Marc Vallée film never quite dissembles the idea in an interesting fashion despite a solid cast.
In the early part of the film, Gyllenhaal introduces himself — via a complaint letter — as a successful fund executive at his father-in-law's firm. He has a nice house, a pleasant commute into the city and a lovely wife named Julia, played in ghostly flashbacks by Leighton Meester look-a-like Heather Lind. When she's killed in a car crash, Gyllenhaal attempts to buy some M&Ms from a vending machine at the hospital. The machine fails to deliver, setting off the character's compulsion to write complaint letters and begin a friendship with the customer service rep at the vending machine company.
But before their contact takes the focus, we're treated to Gyllenhaal's slow disintegration. He abandons his rigorous morning grooming rituals and sharp business look. He's distracted as his father-in-law introduces the idea of a scholarship to honor Julia's memory. In this, Gyllenhaal is a strong presence as a man trying to hide his grief. Unfortunately, the film hobbles his performance via a voice-over in which he tells the customer rep (and us) that he cannot feel his grief. The actor's even tone (when not monologing via voice-over) and odd actions actually convey this well enough.
The film pivots when he finally meets the customer rep, Naomi Watt's Karen Moreno. Unlike the white collar world he married into, Karen lives a decidedly blue collar existence on Long Island with her teen son and overbearing boyfriend, the vending company owner. Watts is quite enjoyable as Karen, whose oddness matches Gyllenhaal's character.
And though it might seem to be setting up a new romantic life for Gyllenhaal, the film eschews this in favor of the character becoming a mentor to Karen's son Chris. Enchanted with glam rock and rebelling against the provincial attitudes of the town, Judah Lewis brings a wonderful sense of life to the character as his own self-discovery takes center stage when he and Gyllenhaal prepare to dismantle the latter's home.
"We're taking apart my marriage," he explains to the boy, but curiously, that never quite seems to happen.
Instead, the film pivots again as Gyllenhaal discovers his wife's secret and he returns to the Manhattan world to discover her motivations. But by this point, we're more invested in Chris and how Gyllenhaal's understanding of him allows the boy to literally come out. The film may sense this problem as both threads have sudden, but muddled climaxes.
Though the performances are fantastic all around, including Chris Cooper as the father-in-law and C.J. Wilson as Karen's boyfriend, the film never takes itself apart to decide whose story matters most or which characters should be revealed to the audience.
Ostensibly, the film belongs to Gyllenhaal, but we leave him in very much the same state we met him. His interior life, the seeming purpose of his story, is never revealed and his need to demolish objects around him never really gives him insight into what to do with his life. His friendship with Chris, the most interesting thread, gets abandoned once Gyllenhaal learns his wife was hiding something from him. Karen, for as great as Watts is playing her, disappears for large sections of the film.
And for all the interesting but elliptical ideas, the film never gets past its "affluent white man learns there is more to living than his job" trappings. Despite wanting to disassemble that life, Vallée never finds a compelling reason for the lead's underlying discomfort or why it has become something he can sense in the wake of his wife's tragedy. Instead, Demolition reaches out for an escape from that misery without actually examining it.