By Bill Wine
PHILADELPHIA (CBS) — Quietly, maybe even methodically, Jake Gyllenhaal has established himself as a special actor, perhaps the proverbial “best of his generation,” even if the Academy has pretty much ignored him, but for the exception of his Oscar nomination as Best Supporting Actor for Brokeback Mountain.READ MORE: 2 Tigers At Pittsburgh Zoo Test Positive For COVID-19
Yet from his promising early work in October Sky and Donnie Darko through his impressive turns in Jarhead, Zodiac, and Love & Other Drugs, and most vividly and superlatively in the recent Nightcatcher and Southpaw, he has consistently shone.
Demolition continues to make his case as a skilled screen-acting stalwart who can easily carry and sometimes even transcend a film.
He plays Davis Mitchell, an investment banker working for his father-in-law, played by Chris Cooper. Early on, Davis’s wife (Heather Lind) is killed in a car accident from which he walks away unscathed. But while his father-in-law is clearly and devastatingly grief-stricken, Davis responds oddly.
First of all, he raises eyebrows by going back to work just about immediately. And he is surprised to discover that he cannot cry. He’s numb. And he questions why that might be.
He also has a new-found blunt honesty that bespeaks a complete absence of filters. And in a burst of what his colleagues might call creative destruction, he begins dismantling everything in his house – and life – starting with the refrigerator, then moving on to the computer, followed by the bathroom stall.
Only by taking things apart, he reasons, can he figure out how to put them back together, “For some reason, everything has become a metaphor,” he says at one point.
And so does the movie.READ MORE: Jason Kelce Named Philadelphia Eagles' Nominee For Walter Payton NFL Man Of The Year Award
He also writes a series of lengthy customer service letters to a vending machine company after one of their machines malfunctions in the ICU where Davis’s wife dies.
That’s how Davis meets Karen Moreno, played by Naomi Watts, a customer service representative who’s got issues of her own. But she’s intrigued by his letters, so they form an unlikely friendship and tentative romance.
One of her personal concerns is her confused and difficult teenage son, well-played by Judah Lewis, who turns to Davis as part of his search for an identity.
Davis’s questionable behavior as a recent widower certainly undermines his relationship with his father-in-law/boss, but it does something else as well.
It demonstrates that his seemingly successful career on Wall Street failed to fulfill him and that his marriage was far more troubled than it appeared on the surface.
French-Canadian director Jean-Marc Vallee (Wild, Dallas Buyers Club, The Young Victoria, C.R.A.Z.Y., Café de Flore), working from an interestingly playful first screenplay by Bryan Sipe, navigates several tricky tone shifts. They work rather smoothly, even if some of the behavior, especially in the late going, seems arbitrary if not contradictory.
But it’s Gyllenhaal who gives us a complex, nuanced focal character, balancing self-delusion with self-deprecation, mixing in a pleasing level of sharp wit and quirky charm, and finding the elusive, narrow line between the tragic and the comic.
He also finds ways to surprise us, sometimes tiptoeing over the top, other times ducking neatly beneath the bottom, while helping us to ignore the fact that the narrative implausibilities are starting to add up.
But the collaboration between Gyllenhaal and Vallee does at least result in a compelling main character whom, while we may question his sanity at times, we care about and root for.
So we’ll creatively destroy 2-1/2 stars out of 4. Jake Gyllenhaal’s semi-successful mission is to provide the ignition for Demolition.Car Crash In North Philadelphia Leaves Man Dead, Police Say