Jake Gyllenhaal wants you to think he’s weird. Things are easier that way: As long as you think he’s a little off, Gyllenhaal can keep making strange, “adult” dramas like Southpaw, Enemy, and Nightcrawler, each character less recognizably human than the last. If he comes off a touch feral, well, great! Then he doesn’t have to play a superhero, which seems to be the whole strategy here.
But here’s the thing: Gyllenhaal isn’t that weird. He’s handsome, and he’s exceedingly talented. He thinks it’s super provocative to say something like: “We have a desperation to categorize people who are ‘not normal.’ … Normal, to me, is perverse.” He’s really just a leading man trying extremely hard to make you believe that he’s not. This is how he ends up in films like Jean-Marc Vallée’s Demolition, which, much like Gyllenhaal, mistakes zaniness for actual dysfunction, and in doing so comes off as supremely square. Gyllenhaal plays Davis, your garden-variety soul-sucked financier. His wife dies, tragically (shouts to WASP dream Heather Lind!), and Davis has what most anyone would consider a total psychotic break. But because this movie is “weird,” that break — in which Davis starts unscrewing, deconstructing, and, well, demolishing everything he can get his hands on — is played for laughs, mostly. Wildly depressed Gyllenhaal buys a bulletproof vest and takes a couple shots to the chest? Hilarious! Clearly-losing-it Jake wields a sledgehammer? Raucous!
To be fair, Gyllenhaal is great in these moments; he takes a palpable joy in just breaking shit, and it’s not really his fault that the film around him is so haphazardly assembled. But it’s a waste of a performance, which is becoming a trend for Gyllenhaal. He’s made it clear that he’s unwilling to play the superstar game, and that’s admirable, until you start taking on movies like Demolition or Prisoners or even Southpaw. (I’ll give him a pass for Nightcrawler.) The roles the dude clearly excels in — men pushed to their breaking points, guys who are charmingly bad at behaving correctly — have all migrated to TV, and the ones left are either awards bait or spandex’d morality plays. So here’s our Jake, swinging a sledgehammer toward too-easy resolution and “challenging himself” in a movie that no one saw. Enough. Let us cast the gauntlet: Get weird, Jake. Actually weird. Like, plays-an-ancient-turtle-trapped-in-a-man’s-body weird. (We’d also take Nightcrawler weird again. That was good.) Or, hell: Just go star in a Bourne movie, already. Just get out of this fake-weird middle.
This piece originally appeared in the April 11, 2016, edition of the Ringer newsletter.