Director Jean-Marc Vallée has once again proven his uncanny ability to make watchable films out of stories that sound like middlebrow drivel. Dallas Buyer’s Club was about a homophobic, AIDs-afflicted bullrider who meets a transvestite hustler and learns a valuable lesson (see also: a straight white savior narrative). In Wild, Reese Witherspoon plays a promiscuous intravenous drug user hiking the Pacific Crest trail in order to have cathartic moments and “walk myself back into the woman my mother thought I was.”
Those are elevator pitches that’d have me hopping off at the next floor (ding!), yet in both cases, I felt much differently once I was in the theater. Demolition is another non-groundbreaking, strangely enjoyable drama seemingly synthesized out of spare parts from previous indies. It’s essentially a mash-up of Hesher, About Schmidt, and Office Space, that doesn’t have much to say that those movies didn’t say already. And yet… I liked those movies, and I like this one.
Jake Gyllenhaal plays a bored finance dude who’s driving home with his beautiful wife (Heather Lind) one day, barely listening as she yap yap yaps about a leaky refrigerator. When all of a sudden, WHAM! Their car gets sideswiped and she dies. I always enjoy a good smash-cut-to-funeral, but instead there’s an intervening scene set in intensive care. Gyllenhaal’s character finds out his wife’s dead, and reacts by trying to buy some Peanut M&Ms from a vending machine. The bag ends up getting dingleberry’d on the end of the dispenser — talk about insult to injury! In the coming days, everyone expects his character to grieve, but he can’t, and the only way he can process his feelings is through a series of increasingly introspective letters to the vending machine company. The vending machine customer service lady becomes, in effect, his Ndugu, if you’ve seen About Schmidt.
His wife’s death, meanwhile, rather than making him sad, only serves to make him aware of all the things he’d been taking for granted. Squirrels in the park. Uprooted trees. People on the train. “Everything looks like a metaphor,” he writes to the vending machine lady. Suddenly, instead of stocks and bonds and the Fisher account, it’s taking things apart that inspires him. He dismantles refrigerators, ponders the contents of people’s luggage at the airport, and befriends a troubled teen. We get to live vicariously through his transformation into guy who lives in the moment and doesn’t care about the normal things (luckily, he is rich). His wife’s death functions as the hypnotist in Office Space.