A film review by Craig J. Koban September 27, 2010


2010, R, 90 mins.


Ben Kalmen: Michael Douglas / Daniel Cheston: Jesse Eisenberg / Nancy: Susan Sarandon / Jimmy: Danny DeVito / Susan: Jenna Fischer / Jordan: Mary-Louise Parker / Allyson: Imogen Poots

Directed by Brian Koppelman and David Levien / Written by Brian Koppelman

SOLITARY MAN contains an unendingly fascinating character study – and a virtuoso performance that brings it to the forefront - that unfortunately happens to be trapped within a curiously unfinished, shapeless, and meandering story.  The rather paper-thin narrative is disappointingly episodic and never feels as fully formed as it should (which may or may not have something to do with its very sparse 90-minute running time), but there is no doubt that the central main performance by Michael Douglas that’s isolated within the plot is one of his finest in years.  This leaves me with one of the more regrettable dilemmas as the film critic: Can a great performance trump a film’s lackluster script? 

Well…almost in this film's case.  Douglas is as smoothly nuanced and as convincingly charming as he’s ever been playing Ben Kalmen, a man that was once one of the most successful car dealers around, but through a series of unfortunate events he has been left with virtually no money, no friends, and a family that he is estranged from.  Ben has many things going for him, especially for his advancing years: he’s still relatively handsome, has a sly and mischievous manner, is fast talking and persuasive, and has a disarming personal charm.  All of these exterior traits mask one central inner pain: Ben has been dealt the news that he has a failing heart and was to undergo as series of tests, but he very quickly decided to avoid them at all costs.  Now, facing utter financial ruin, a very public job scandal that makes him nearly unemployable, and a potentially fatal heart aliment, he decides that his only mechanism to deal with and hide his grief and anxiety is to bang as many women – and very, very young ones, at that – as he possibly can. 

At one point in his life, Ben was once a very prominent celebrity, known as "New York’s Honest Car Dealer".  Lamentably, he let his ego get in the way of engaging in ethical business practices, which led to him being investigated with dire results.  His once thriving business empire was essentially grounded for good, after which he hit rock bottom in a truly hard way.  He let himself go nearly penniless and, as a result, reduced himself to beg for handouts from his daughter, Susan (Jenna Fisher), who has long become ashamed of the man her father has become.  Perhaps this has something to do with his divorce to his wife, Nancy (Susan Sarandon) that was predicated on Ben’s…shall we say…extracurricular sexual activities.  Part of Ben’s emotional shield from all of his personal and financial quandaries has been his rampant hedonistic impulses: getting laid – often with women a third of his age – has been his one relief, but the problem is that he lets it override all other normal impulses at the least opportune time. 

No more is Ben’s unhealthy fixation on bedding girls brought to the forefront than on a trip he goes on early in the film with the 18-year-old daughter of his current girlfriend, Allyson (Imogen Poots).  Ben’s current girlfriend (Mary-Louise Parker) wants him to escort her young daughter to her first day at college.  The trip is significant for Ben not only because he is a former alumni, but also because he was one of the largest donators to the construction of one of the college's more prominent buildings.  During the first day there Ben parts ways with Allyson to do some sight seeing and eventually hooks up with a shy and impressionable new student named Daniel (Jesse Eisenberg) that serves as his tour guide while he is there.  It is at this point where things change for Ben…for the worse. 

Ben notices that Daniel is a greenhorn when it comes to women, so he takes it upon himself to impart his wisdom on how to deal with the opposite sex to him.  Something sparks within Ben at this point – perhaps the sensation of feeling young again – because he later gets back together with Allyson and…seduces and sleeps with her.  When Allyson and Ben return home he naively seems convinced that he can maintain a relationship with both mother and daughter, and not of the platonic kind, but when the agitated Allyson blurts out to her mother what Ben did, she hungrily vows to ruin him in any fiendish manner possible. 

Things snowball down even further for Ben: His daughter becomes so enraged as his detrimental lifestyle that she severs ties from him altogether.  A would-be lucrative business deal falls flat when the bank refuses to give Ben the necessary capital, mostly because of his past criminal activities as a car dealer.  He is later forced to downsize from his nice condo to a fleabag apartment, but is evicted when he cannot make rent payments.  Knowing that he has no place else to go, he returns back to his alma mater and reconnects with an old college friend named Jimmy (Danny DeVito, re-teeming onscreen with Douglas after nearly 20 years) who takes pity on Ben by giving him a place to stay as well as job waiting tables at his college diner.  Just when Ben thinks things could not get any worse, his ex-girlfriend discovers that he is back at her daughter’s campus and sends a hired thug there to physically convince him to leave. 

The immediate reaction one might have to Ben is to despise him, but Michael Douglas does something kind of thanklessly difficult here.  He carefully and securing cultivates this “solitary man” as a intrinsically multi-faceted being that defies simplistic labels.  Yes, he is certainly a morose loser for the way he hits on any skirt that passes his way, not to mention that his indiscretion with a teenage girl is downright sleazy (and if that were not dreadful enough, he later decides to have a go at Daniel’s new girlfriend nearly right in front of him at a college party).  He also is a figure of contempt for the manner he treats his daughter, showing up in her life when it’s convenient for him and mostly when he requires financial assistance from her.   On paper, this guy is a total deadbeat. 

Yet, Douglas infuses his movie star bravado and low-key magnetism to the role, which also makes Don a hypnotically inviting, well spoken, and urbane character that is really hard to hate.  Even more compelling is how Douglas evokes a man at the autumn of his life that seems hell bent on systematically destroying it.  The central tragedy of the film is that Ben, after his health scare, decides to spend what may be his last years on earth in the pursuit of carnal pleasures, without a care in the world as to whom he hurts in the process.  He is driven by an unstoppable gluttony to manage people around him and use them for his own purposes, even when he knows, deep down, that it’s slowly destroying what kernel of self-respect he has left.  Douglas – whom has not been this finely calibrated, raw, and honest in a role in a long while – creates a tour de force performance of petty human flaws and selfish indulgences.  You feel pity, remorse, and condemnation for Ben at the same time, which is a direct a testament to Douglas' layered performance. 

The other actors are resoundingly decent as well, especially Imogen Poots, who suggests a sly grace, maturity and wisdom beyond her years, even when she makes cardinal social blunders.  Jenna Fisher is a revelation as Ben’s wounded daughter.  Danny DeVito in particular gives one of the more quietly empowered performances in the film for the way he calmly and nonchalantly attempts to put Ben back on a redemptive path.  This leads to an ending - and a final shot - that is ambiguously compelling: Ben is faced with a simple choice between a self-destructive path or one where he can reclaim some normalcy in his life.  The film never directly reveals his choice, which only helps emphasize Ben as a man that may forever be troubled with making wise choices.  It's hard to teach an old dog new tricks.

The main misgiving, however, that I had with SOLITARY MAN is that the underlining script seems to hastily unfold and leave a lot of elements undeveloped.  For instance, consider the relationship between Ben and Daniel, which is only broadly hinted at, not to mention that the history of Ben and Jimmy is only sketchily delineated, as is the reasons behind Ben’s jail time and career misdeeds.  Characters kind of bob and weave throughout the plot, sometimes rather jarringly, especially Sarandon’s wife, who barely makes much of an appearance in the film or establishes herself as a prominent figure within the script.  Sarandon is solid in her all-too-brief role, but she – along with many of the supporting players – appears to give a fully formed and robust performance in a somewhat formless narrative. 

As a textbook character study, SOLITARY MAN is on very solid ground, and Douglas deserves some legitimate Oscar consideration for his work.  His performance here, especially viewed now, seems to really hit home in unexpectedly sentimental ways.  I just recently saw the actor on David Letterman discussing his recent diagnosis of throat cancer (now at advanced stage 4) with a not-so-iron-clad chance of survival.  The actor was the epitome of poise, grace, humility and courage.  Ben Kalmen is an eerie reflection of Douglas: both men are facing a health crisis and both  – perhaps to a lesser degree with Douglas – have had public bouts where their personal appetites and addictions have gotten the better of them.   This added dimension makes SOLITARY MAN perhaps even more intriguing of a watch from its initial release earlier this year.  I just wished that the story around its wonderfully colorful and captivating main character were handled with equal care and attention. 

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