At SXSW this weekend, Jake Gyllenhaal charmed his way to raucous laughter and exuberant applause for a movie that was frankly awful.
Demolition, written by Bryan Sipe and directed by Dallas Buyer's Club and Wild's Jean-Marc Vallée, tells the story of Davis Mitchell, a man who can't bring himself to appropriately grieve the sudden death of his wife, and so starts literally demolishing everything he can. Like, with a sledgehammer. It starts with the refrigerator his wife asked him to fix, then moves on to the bathroom stalls at work, his computer, and eventually the basic structure of his house. Get it? He's destroying his life so he can rebuild! And that's it. That's the entire movie.
The script has a Garden State / if-only-Miranda-July-were-a-dude vibe that feels anachronistic in 2016. Sipe writes a particularly embarrassing character for Gyllenhaal's co-star, Naomi Watts. After a rogue vending machine refuses to spit out a pack of M&M's, Gyllenhaal takes up writing Patrick Bateman-y missives about urban life to the vending company's customer service rep (Watts). She is — for some reason — charmed by this, and so she calls him up one night to say "There's just something about your letters... I'm reading one in the tub right now. I'm not bathing, I'm just sitting here." They never develop a sexual relationship, but he does become best friends with her son and start hanging out at her house all day, sometimes dancing on top of her SUV. Very whimsical!
gyllenhaal is the best weirdo in the business
This movie is so bad. But Jake Gyllenhaal is nauseatingly winning. He's boy-band seductive and a kind of comic genius. The audience let out a belly laugh at Gyllenhaal's pitch perfect delivery of a dumb line: "Jennifer Hymen. That's really her name?" As if to say: who knew?
Gyllenhaal's performance in Demolition could also be called a light-hearted version of the social outcast he played in Nightcrawler: from the clipped, embarrassingly honest speech, to the studied, American Psycho bathroom rituals, right down to the slow blink he does when struggling to comprehend another person's facial expression. The main difference is that Dan Gilroy turned Gyllenhaal into a ghoul, and Vallée plays up the star's boyish looks for maximum maternal-instinct-eliciting effect.
If the movie had been screened without Gyllenhaal present, I'm not sure people would have been as thrilled. But JG was far and away the biggest star who dropped in on the film festival, setting himself up for an easy win with the audience. He sidled on stage uninvited during Vallée's insanely long-winded introduction of the film. To huge applause. Gyllenhaal didn't look like a vain movie star hogging someone else's spotlight, he looked more like a roguish teen, swooping in to charm his buddy out of hot water (Vallée had just recited a Roman Polansky quote for some reason).
He jogged off with a wave as the lights dimmed. The emotional buzz in the room collapsed as we realized it could be two hours before he talked to us again. Fortunately for everyone involved, Demolition has copious amounts of JG voiceover.
During the post-film discussion, Gyllenhaal said, "I was almost a little embarrassed to play this role, since it's kind of like me." In a Q&A earlier that day, he made a similar comment about his 2001 breakthrough role as Donnie Darko, a part that turned Gyllenhaal into a semi-accidental paragon of early aughts counterculture. The cult classic's reach is so pervasive, a young woman at the Demolition premiere, who could not have been older than 10 at Darko's release, used her time at the microphone to shout at Gyllenhaal, "SO HOW EXACTLY DOES ONE SUCK A FUCK?"
Before Donnie Darko, Gyllenhaal was just a cute kid in a bad movie about wanting to be an astronaut. But his portrayal of a teenage intellectual with a great face and subpar social skills was so convincing, he immediately became a quick-witted oddball in the public imagination.
And Jake Gyllenhaal is kind of an oddball. Jake Gyllenhaal believes the moon affects human behavior. Jake Gyllenhaal refuses to tell people how tall he is. Jake Gyllenhaal can quote South Pacific. But Jake Gyllenhaal is the kind of oddball everyone loves — he's handsome, of course, he named his dogs after To Kill a Mockingbird characters, he dated Taylor Swift and he dumped Taylor Swift. He's got a teen cult classic and half a dozen Oscar contenders and a Little Shop of Horrors reboot under his belt. He took his crooked smile and those eyebrows on Amy Poehler and Maya Rudolph's Bronx Beat and made your mom swoon.
everyone loves a musical theater nerd
At the end of the day it's appealing to have a weirdo as one of our best working actors, even if he occasionally picks a lame vehicle for himself — like Demolition.
I am not one to think it's cute when attractive men use grins and impeccable suit cuts to breeze past warranted criticism. But Jake Gyllenhaal did it and who even cares? SXSW ate it up with a spoon. After the screening I bought a bag of peanut M&Ms for dinner, like the ones his character tortured himself over in the film, just to feel close to him. It was so dumb I didn't even Snapchat it!
I kind of believe Jake Gyllenhaal is one of the most fascinating people alive. Also that he's the best actor of his generation. I guess that's why we all clapped so hard.