Tuesday, April 19, 2016

'Demolition' review

Roger Ebert is one of the greatest critical voices of all time, and there's one quote of his that I particularly love. The quote goes like this:

"And for me, the movies are like a machine that generates empathy. It lets you understand a little bit more about different hopes, aspirations, dreams and fears. It helps us to identify with the people who are sharing this journey with us."

I use this quote all the time, mostly because I think that it sums up so much of what I love about movies. Entering a film is like entering a world of endless possibilities. We can discover new worlds, meet new people, and find people who are like us. When people ask me why I love movies the way I do, Ebert's magnificent quote is always rattling in the back of my head.

And maybe that's why Demolition didn't work for me. In Jean-Marc Vallee's existential story of life and death, we're introduced to a character named Davis, played by the ever-terrific Jake Gyllenhaal. By every count, Davis is an unlikable person. He's not someone who I liked, or understood, or could even comprehend. I don't share his experiences, his feelings or his bizarre worldview. The best movies and the best filmmakers would take this material and elevate it, helping the audience to feel something for the characters. Demolition never does that. Vallee specializes in making flawed, complex characters, but in Demolition, he takes Davis and Karen (Naomi Watts) to an extreme that never quite pans out. Instead of witnessing a very emotional experience, the film will leave you cold and perplexed, wondering what exactly you just watched, why you hated every character in it and how the movie didn't work at all. Ultimately, Demolition fails the Roger Ebert test- it generates absolutely zero empathy.

So let's start with the character of Davis and the basic idea of the movie. He's a man disconnected from the world. He's an investment banker, which in the movie world, means that he's a giant tool. He doesn't really care about his wife, views his job as meaningless, and is basically a less murder-prone version of Patrick Bateman. In the first scene of the movie, his wife Julia (Heather Lind) is killed in an awful car accident. That should generate some sympathy for Davis immediately, and for a fleeting moment, it kinda works. But that doesn't last long. After a while, it's apparent that Davis has a very bizarre way of dealing with his grief. Misunderstood by his father-in-law (Chris Cooper) and the rest of his family, Davis attempts to figure out his life through a series of straight-up weird activities.

To start off, Davis writes a series of letters to Champion Vending Company, the operator of a vending machine at the hospital where his wife died. That specific vending machine failed to give him Peanut M&Ms, and I guess he holds some sort of personal vendetta against the company. Eventually, the letters reach Karen (Naomi Watts), the leader of the Champion customer services department. Karen is the only one who really gives him a chance, but it turns out that she's just as crazy as he is. And she also has a kid (Judah Lewis), who befriends Davis and discusses his burgeoning sexuality with him. And then after that, Davis has some sort of realization and then the movie ends. I guarantee that by the end of this movie, you will have zero sympathy for any of the characters that inhabit this world.

When I look at Demolition, I see a movie that has no vision and no focus. I see a never-ending series of awful choices. It takes an interesting concept and, pardon the pun, demolishes it with a weird mix of cliches and absurdity that never comes to fruition. There are flashes of brilliance- an occasional touching moment, or fascinating character idea. And yet, almost every plot point, script choice, and character detail made me scratch my head in a sort of disbelief. With all of the talent involved- acclaimed Dallas Buyers Club director Vallee, Gyllenhaal (who's on a spectacular roll), Cooper and Watts- it's almost astonishing how awful this movie ended up. Every choice is just......wrong. Plain and simple.

And then I saw who wrote the screenplay. Demolition was written by Bryan Sipe, who also wrote the instant classic romance movie The Choice, which received an absolutely stellar 26 on Metacritic. Now, I don't mean to completely wreck Sipe or his career as a screenwriter. This is only his second screenplay, and who knows, maybe he could write a masterpiece someday. But Demolition shows none of that promise. It's a movie that is completely tone-deaf, a movie that avoids giving its audience anything to work with. Every character in the movie is either a stuck-up, unlikable curmudgeon or an absolute crazy person. The film is dominated by lackluster storytelling, highlighted by head-scratch worthy twists and ridiculous subplots that serve no purpose. Demolition feels so maudlin and overdramatic that it almost reaches parody levels.

Ultimately, it all flows back to the characters of Davis and Karen. There's obvious some Silver Linings Playbook influence in here- two characters struggling with clear mental illnesses who find each other and assist in the healing process. And yet, the way Demolition plays it off feels phony and disingenuous. When I see Silver Linings, I see a movie with characters who make mistakes, who learn things and who take all of their pain and anger and channel it into a beautiful relationship. In Demolition, I see a movie with two characters who do bizarre, socially unacceptable things and then go "Oh, I guess I should be less of a jerk." By the end of Demolition, I didn't feel like Davis had healed himself. I didn't feel like Karen had actually become a better mother. Everything about it felt forced, and it contrasted everything that the narrative had built up beforehand. And most of all, I didn't care. I hated Davis and I hated Karen. Everything they did made me feel uncomfortable and when the movie gave them a traditional happy ending, it just made me squirm.

Demolition is a visually striking movie, led by a slick sense of a style and a modernist approach. Gyllenhaal delivers a compelling performance, proving once again that he can convincingly portray any character. And there are some decent attempts to redeem the movie towards the final act. That's about it. Everything else in Demolition will either confound audiences or bore them to tears. Dominated by a wacky mix of existential nonsense and uninteresting melodrama, this movie just falls flat. The best thing about Demolition is the fact that it isn't bad in an aggressive way. I forgot about it in less than a day. And unless you're suffering from a very acute crisis of emotional numbness, you'll probably end up feeling the same way.

THE FINAL GRADE:  C-                                             (4.9/10)

Images courtesy of Fox Searchlight Pictures

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