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The 40th annual Toronto International Film Festival kicked off this year with a film most won’t get to see until next year. Canadian director Jean-Marc Valle returned to the festival – after engaging TIFF last year with Reese Witherspoon’s Wild -- to launch the full slate of programming with his quirky, dark character comedy Demolition (scheduled to reach theaters in 2016). Addressing the gathered masses in the Princess of Wales theater before a sold-out opening night screening, Valle talked about wanting to set a "rock ‘n’ roll" tone for the evening that he hoped would carry out over the rest of the fest. He repeatedly talked about his film making "a lot of noise."
The film, itself, strikes a few too many off-key chords, though.
Jean-Marc Valle recruits Jake Gyllenhaal for this latest effort, but asks the versatile and down-for-anything actor to figure out an uneven and unlikable protagonist who never manages to gel as a human being. Gyllenaahl plays Davis Mitchell, a preppy and put-together investment banker who’s thrown a curveball when his wife, Julia (Heather Lind), dies in a car crash. (This takes place in the film’s opening, and is not a spoiler.) Instead of properly grieving – the first sign he isn’t a relatable character – Davis attempts to buy Peanut M&Ms from the hospital vending machine. When the candy refuses to fall – I kid you not -- Davis begins sending lengthy letters to the vending machine’s customer service department… using the missives as a device to spill out his stunted emotional problems.
For a while, I was able to excuse the letter-writing device (accompanied by cheesy narration) so that we could see where Demolition was going. I even let it go – though I still rolled my eyes – when the lone customer service rep at the vending machine company, Karen Moreno (Naomi Watts), began calling Davis because she was so caught up in his letters. Never bought it for one second, but I allowed it. Of course, these two form a dysfunctional romantic relationship. That’s the type of movie Demolition is. I just didn’t expect that the pairing of Gyllanhaal and Valle would produce something so off-kilter, uneven and tone deaf.
The characterization in Bryan Sipe’s screenplay was just so baffling. Demolition frequently felt like it was aiming for the exaggerated emotional targets David O. Russell has been hitting lately in movies like Silver Linings Playbook or The Fighter. With Gyllenhaal, Watts and Chris Cooper contributing, these are interesting characters asked to walk down multiple, improbable paths. But Sipe stacks too many rehabilitation clichés on top of one another, and the performances ultimately can not keep Demolition on track.
In years past at TIFF, Jake Gyllenhaal has been the best part of outstanding movies that general audiences couldn’t be convinced to see. No matter how hard critics lobbied for the likes of Nightcrawler or Prisoners, they were a hard sell to mainstream crowds. Once again, Gyllenhaal is the best thing about Demolition, and he sinks his teeth into this free-wheeling, unpredictable and go-for-broke role. But this time, the movie around him can’t support his performance, or the wild-card lunacy Valle happens to be trading in.
This review was filed at the 2015 Toronto International Film Festival.