“Demolition” begins with Davis Mitchell, an investment banker, attempting to grieve for his dead wife. He practices crying, but it doesn’t work. Instead, he destroys things — refrigerators, coffee machines, his entire house (a Roslyn Heights residence was used for this scene) — hence the film’s title. As Davis himself says, “For some reason, everything has become a metaphor.”
That’s this movie’s problem as well. Directed by Jean-Marc Vallée (“Dallas Buyers Club,” “Wild”) and starring Jake Gyllenhaal, an actor whose still waters always run deep, “Demolition” has the makings of a moving and slightly eccentric drama. Instead, “Demolition” throws random developments at its passive hero, hoping that symbolism will somehow arise. As a result, the movie is simultaneously aimless, contrived and cloying.
A story develops when Davis’ letters to a vending machine company (he got cheated out of some Peanut M&M’s) turn confessional and poetic. It’s the kind of thing people do only in movies (the screenplay is by Bryan Sipe), and the shy customer service rep who calls back, Karen Moreno (Naomi Watts), exists only in movies as well. “Your letters made me cry, Mr. Mitchell,” she says. They begin an awkward relationship.
Karen isn’t much of a person. She smokes pot, sleeps with her boss and can’t handle her angry young son, Chris (newcomer Judah Lewis). Davis starts playing father figure, though why a rebellious teen would bond with an emotionally absent Wall Streeter is unclear. They bond anyway. Their birds-and-bees discussion is one of the film’s least convincing and misguided moments.
Meanwhile, Davis is becoming a Class-A jerk, though the movie doesn’t realize it. He mocks his distraught father-in-law, Phil (Chris Cooper), and refuses to establish a scholarship in his wife’s name. The movie keeps inventing weak excuses for this behavior — Phil is a corporate 1-percenter, and the scholarship kids are privileged snots — but that doesn’t change the fact that Davis is a self-absorbed whiner who can afford to mope without working. As for Davis’ dead wife (Heather Lind), wait ’til you see how the movie treats her.
Though generally well-acted, “Demolition” is a case of a character — and not a very likable one — in search of a story. When everything becomes a metaphor, nothing has any meaning.