Demolition **

Jake Gyllenhaal evokes zero-sympathy as a man who’s numb to the world, and as a result the whole movie falters. But here’s the catch: It’s not his fault!

Is it worth $10? No

“Demolition” is a movie about a man who doesn’t feel emotions, and as a result we feel nothing for him. If you can’t emotionally invest in the main character, why watch a drama?

Instinctively our hearts want to break for Davis (Jake Gyllenhaal) when his wife is killed in a car accident, but when he can’t even bring himself to so much as shed a tear, well, it’s hard for us to give a damn about anything that comes after.

Clearly he’s not processing the loss, we think. He’s in denial. Shock. We all grieve in our own way, right? But he never snaps out of it, and indications are he was like this well before his wife’s death. Davis also has no friends. He hates his job as a money manager working for his father-in-law Phil (Chris Cooper). He claims he didn’t love his deceased wife (Heather Lind). He’s numb to the world, indifferent about everything. And yet, given his propensity to confess deeply personal things to complete strangers, clearly he yearns for a connection.

In a clever bit of storytelling, director Jean-Marc Vallee (“Dallas Buyers Club”) uses complaint letters Davis writes to a vending machine company as personal discourses that allow us to learn his backstory. The letters pique the interest of Karen (Naomi Watts), a single mother of 15 year-old Chris (Judah Lewis) with issues of her own. She resists meeting Davis, but soon they form a symbiotic bond that is never quite believable. Her backstory is never discussed, and why they’re drawn to one another is anyone’s guess. To make matters worse, Davis is a terrible role model for Chris, even if Bryan Sipe’s screenplay tries hard to make you think otherwise.

Here’s another thing: Phil tells Davis to tear things apart and examine everything so he can put all the pieces back together. Davis takes this literally, even going so far as to pay construction guys so he can do their work for them. While this provides for a movie title that otherwise makes no sense, it’s nonetheless bad advice. Davis proceeds to destroy his refrigerator, work computer, a cappuccino machine and later his house. Why is he doing this, exactly? It’s never clear. He rarely shows and never discusses his emotions. You kind of feel bad for Gyllenhaal because his character is the equivalent of a stone and (worse) has the personality of one. Even someone as phenomenally talented as Gyllenhaal will struggle with a script this opaque.

Watts doesn’t fair much better. One senses she knows her character is a lost soul but isn’t quite sure how damaged she is, resulting in a middling rather than impactful performance. Judah Lewis does better playing her son, though Chris’ relationship with Davis feels a bit forced and heavy-handed. And give credit to Chris Cooper: The Oscar winner (“Adaptation”) has the hurt for the loss of his daughter all over his face in every scene, and the movie is stronger because of it.

Unfortunately, the rest of “Demolition” is notably less compelling. Simply put, you cannot tell a story like this without getting the viewer to emotionally invest in the characters, which means you cannot have a lead character who is emotionless. If he feels nothing, we feel nothing. Perhaps on paper Vallee, who did so well in getting us to care for the characters in “Dallas Buyers Club” and “Wild,” thought there was enough in the script for him to bring the story to life visually. Turns out he was wrong.

Did you know?
In last summer’s “Southpaw” Gyllenhaal’s character also deals with his wife’s death, but in that case it was a hyper-emotional response.