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'Demolition' is a good execution of a bad idea (R)

Demolition is a noble, heartfelt movie built around a rickety metaphor: physical destruction as emotional coping mechanism.

After his wife, Julia (Heather Lind), dies in a car accident, Davis (Jake Gyllenhaal) is so paralyzed and shocked that he can’t properly grieve. He can’t even shed a tear. Instead, he starts writing long, sad letters to Karen (Naomi Watts), the customer service rep of a company whose vending machine took his money. His letters make her cry, even though he himself cannot. The irony is probably visible from Mars.

Spurred by the last note Julia left him asking him to fix the icemaker in their refrigerator, Davis becomes obsessed with taking things apart to see how they function. He dismantles his computer and the bathroom stalls at the investment firm where he works. He takes apart his fridge and then begins to dismantle his home, where everything reminds him of his wife, as if the entire world were taunting him. He makes a discovery about Julia that sends him deeper into his sinkhole of blue funk. Even if you’ve never seen a single movie, you can probably guess what the secret is.

Demolition was directed by Jean-Marc Vallée, a filmmaker who specializes in putting us inside the heads of his bewildered protagonists — Reese Witherspoon’s intrepid hiker in Wild, Vanessa Paradis’ harried single mother in Café de Flore. Vallée has a gift for empathy and communicating tumultuous feelings through images and sound: He’s an artist who is more interested in people’s inner lives than in the outside world. 

But Demolition, which was written by Bryan Sipe, never coalesces into anything meaningful: It’s just a series of incidents that don’t add up to anything. Davis starts a platonic friendship with Karen, who is just as wounded as he is, and befriends her brash teenage son Chris (Judah Lewis). He tries to get along with his father-in-law, Phil (Chris Cooper), who also happens to be his boss, but his erratic behavior becomes too destructive to ignore. He refuses to help execute Julia’s will — he can’t even visit her grave — because that would mean confronting the enormity of what has happened.

In one of the film’s worst scenes, Davis has a dream in which he goes to the doctor and learns that part of his heart is literally missing. Vallée’s attempt to convey his protagonist’s guilt and sadness is so heavy-handed, you feel embarrassed for him. Gyllenhaal is stuck in a role that is essentially unplayable, because Davis is more of a writer’s construct than a real person. The actor is best during the film’s lighter moments, such as a scene in which Chris casually, suddenly asks him how to tell if someone is gay. But Demolition is so busy trying to be profound, the film doesn’t have much use for humor. By the time Davis starts swinging a sledgehammer, trying to pummel his way out of his emotional paralysis, you’re ready to take a wrecking ball to the movie.

Cast: Jake Gyllenhaal, Naomi Watts, Chris Cooper, Judah Lewis, Heather Lind.

Director: Jean-Marc Vallée.

Screenwriter: Bryan Sipe.

A Fox Searchlight release. Running time: 100 minutes. Vulgar language, sexual content, drug use, adult themes. Playing at area theaters.