I think I know what the makers of Demolition were trying to do. It's hard to say for sure, since the movie is so near-completely nuts, but I think the idea was simply to show us how the death of a man's wife unhinges his mind and craters his life. One of the several reasons this doesn't work is because we don't get to see what the man was like before the tragedy. Was he ever a normal guy? The movie is virtually all aftermath; and because the man, a New York investment banker named Davis Mitchell, is played by Jake Gyllenhaal, it's hard to watch his bizarre and heartless behavior without flashing back to the dead-eyed sociopath he played so indelibly in the 2014 Nightcrawler. The filmmakers might not have intended to portray Davis as a born psycho, but since that's the only side of him we see, it's impossible to empathize with him—he just seems like a creep. By the time the movie arrives at its unbelievably demented feel-good ending, we're lost in a fog of bafflement.
Bryan Sipe's script—one of those vaunted Black List screenplays—is boldly inane. At the beginning, we find Davis and his wife, Julia (Heather Lind), bickering in a car. Then there's a crash (staged with startling economy by Dallas Buyers Club director Jean-Marc Vallée). Next we see Davis in a corridor of the hospital where Julia is dying, looking coldly oblivious. He attempts to buy some candy from a vending machine, but the machine jams. Later, obsessed with the injustice of this, he writes a letter of complaint to the machine's manufacturer, relating the candy rip-off but also going into his wife's death, the emptiness of his life, and other unnecessary data. Shortly thereafter, he receives a 2 a.m. phone call from a customer-service rep named Karen Moreno (Naomi Watts). "Your letter made me cry," she says. "Do you have anyone to talk to?"
Recognizable human behavior is not an animating concern of this movie. On a train into the city from his sleek Westchester home, Davis confides to a total stranger that he didn't love his wife and feels nothing about her death. Soon, following a metaphorical tip from his father-in-law (Chris Cooper), he decides that in order to put his life back together, he has to start taking things apart. So he sets about dismantling light fixtures, refrigerators, office computers, toilet stalls and whatnot, leaving a trail of wreckage wherever he goes. At a construction site, he pays a foreman to allow him to join the crew—in his business suit—and knock down walls with a sledgehammer. Before long he's pricing bulldozers.
He also tracks Karen to her home by sneaky means. (The movie sometimes feels like a stalker flick.) She is also deeply odd. She tells him right off the bat that they won't be having sex, because "it'd be dangerous." (Possibly an unwise thing to say to a man so handy with a sledgehammer.) She's a pothead, and for some reason gets her weed from an old man (Madison Arnold) out in a dingy beach town. This guy is a walking plot point, his only purpose being to reveal that he owns an antique carousel, which he keeps behind a curtain in his place of residence. I can say no more with a straight face.
The best parts of the movie—parts that could sustain a better movie on their own—are the scenes in which Davis hangs out with single-mom Karen's sullen teenage son, Chris (precociously charismatic newcomer Judah Lewis). Davis is clearly a weird bird (he keeps a bulletproof vest in the trunk of his car for some reason), but Chris comes to see him as a fellow oddball, and confides to him his feelings of sexual confusion. This doesn't really link up with the rest of the story, but it does bring some warmth to these otherwise chilly proceedings.
Gyllenhaal is pretty much always good, and he brings a steely commitment to his performance here. But Davis Mitchell isn't enough of a character to care about, and his nonsensical narrative surroundings (there are also flesh-eating gypsy moths and a phantom station wagon) smother whatever emotional involvement we might have had. And eventually any sort of interest.
Sam Rockwell and Anna Kendrick are a match made in Cuteville. Rockwell, the endearingly damaged hipster, and Kendrick, possibly a loveable woodland creature of some sort, would be a dream team for any movie. Unfortunately, Mr. Right, the movie in which they now feature, has so much built-in cuteness of its own that it nearly swallows them whole.
Rockwell is Francis, a much-in-demand hitman who's growing a conscience: nowadays, instead of terminating people for his clients, he terminates the clients instead. This has made him much-in-demand in a new way—he's currently being stalked around New Orleans by Hopper (Tim Roth), his old mentor in the assassination business, and a gang of bumbling local hoods led by Richie Cartigan (Anson Mount), a crime lord with kooky anger-management issues.
In a convenience store, after knocking over a condom display, Francis draws the attention of Martha (Kendrick), a manic-pixie trainwreck with disastrous taste in men—one Mr. Wrong after another—and a penchant for hiding in closets and drinking herself silly. Francis is immediately smitten, and decides to be up-front: "I'm completely fuckin' bananas," he tells Martha. This is okay with her—she tells Francis her goal in life is to become a crazy old lady.
They start dating, and things go well at first. True, Francis always seems to be stepping outside when they're together ("I had to kill somebody in the parking lot"), but Martha takes this to be an amusing foible. After seeing him actually murder someone, though, she starts having second thoughts. Francis panics: "How I feel about that guy has nothing to do with how I feel about you," he insists. "I'm not a bad person." Martha walks out, but naturally returns, and soon, under Francis's tutelage, discovers she also has a knack for eliminating unsavory individuals.
Rockwell and Kendrick have enough comic chemistry to power two or three movies, and it's a treat to watch them work. Rockwell once again gets to display his dancing skills—his graceful multi-thug beatdowns are like bloody ballet routines—and Kendrick's sweet, eager spirit lights up every scene they share.
But the movie dilutes the stars' effect with an overload of ancillary cuteness. The bulbous red clown nose Francis slips on for rubouts is fine—the man has goofball flair. But did writer Max Landis and director Paco Cabezas really need to outfit the two lovebirds with heart-shaped shades for a romantic Crescent City stroll? And gang boss Cartigan was already colorful enough—did he have to have an origami hobby, too?
The movie is still fun, an offbeat rom-com with a lot of physical flair. And you have to cheer Francis and Martha as they grow ever-closer amid the ambient gunfire. "I feel like I've been in a coma with you," she says. Aww…