Solitary Man

Reviewed By Jack Sommersby
Posted 01/04/11 05:56:07

"Obvious Title; Obvious Picture"
2 stars (Pretty Bad)

Little wonder why this made-for-TV-like cinematic endeavor didn't enjoy a wide theatrical release.

I can't really recommend the well-intentioned Solitary Man because, though I guess it's got its heart in the right place, it's a fairly standardized picture that offers up very little in the way of freshness and leans on its familiarities like a crutch. In fact, the cliches start piling up so early and in such steady supply that by about the forty-five-minute mark it runs completely out of gas; and so you wonder what the next hour is going to bring, and you all but know it's going to be pretty much all of the same and are unfortunately proven right. Basically, there was no reason to make this picture -- it doesn't offer up any decent plot turns or character revelations, just shopworn stuff right off the assembly line. But it's not completely disgraceful because it does offer up some reasonably bright dialogue and, most of all, a full-bodied, confident star performance from Michael Douglas in the leading role that's his best work in quite a while (not that Douglas has been slacking, mind you, only that his roles over the last few years simply haven't given him the opportunity to take over the screen and command like the natural, substantial movie star he is). Solitary Man is the story (as well as an overly-literal title) of a self-centered, brilliant car-dealership businessman, Ben Kalmen (Douglas), whose professional and personal lives are going downhill. Six years prior, at the height of his sensational life, he went into shellshock after being informed by his physician that there was some irregularity with his EKG readings; mortified at the mere thought of his own mortality, he chose not to go back to the doctor for more tests and started to considerably amp up his lifeforce. He started cheating on his longtime wife (Susan Sarandon) with much-younger women and, thinking he had the world in the palm of his hand and was untouchable, engaged in a shady business scam of collecting expensive loans on phantom cars he never possessed, which in the process severely soiled his impeccable, scrupulous image and almost landed him in jail. He's now divorced and sponging off rich divorcee Jordan (Mary Louise Parker) though still cheating whenever he can; and he's on the verge of reviving his sullied career by winning the votes to open up a new dealership at a can't-miss location. But things progressively go to hell after he takes Jordan's spunky, take-no-guff eighteen-year-old daughter Allyson (Imogene Poots) to a fancy Ivy League college for her interview; Ben went to school there, knows the dean, has endowed the place with many donations over the years, and the library even bares his name. Late that night back at the hotel, Ben and the rebellious Allyson, after some drinks in the bar, engage in some hot and heavy sex upstairs; a couple of weeks later, she tells her mother just to spite her, and the mother, with wealth and influence, torpedoes Ben's business venture, and he's soon penniless and booted out of his apartment.

Ben is not a particularly original character, and his dramatic arc is far from revelatory, but, amazingly, Douglas manages to give him some girth and flair and makes him compelling. Brazenly egotistical, Ben is only concerned with his own self-worth and immediate pleasure -- no-strings-attached sex and dining in expensive restaurants and the like are his forte -- with his soul steadily dwindling away. In his undying quest to live life to the fullest, he severely compromises any semblances of guiding principles: he's willing to sell everything out for euphoria. And Douglas, who suavely and superlatively played soulless monsters in Wall Street and A Perfect Murder, charts Ben's moral deterioration with admirable restraint and tact -- unlike a foolish actor, he doesn't make a big deal out of the character's predominating showy traits. And he isn't afraid to show his age -- he's willing to come off crinkled and wrinkled and more than a bit pathetic when coming on to younger women, especially at a college keg party where, decades later, he still knows how to work this kind of room. (Unfortunately, the college scenes introduce the facile character of a shy, nebbish student played by the mediocre Jesse Eisenberg, who's the very epitome of blandness in the Ralph Macchio-'80s vein.) But the screenwriter, Brian Koppelman, who penned underwhelming fare like Rounders and Ocean's Thirteen, doesn't give Ben much in the way of interesting levels and surprises -- you can practically foretell just about every word of dialogue that comes out of his mouth; and you don't need a Ouija Board to know when he's going to get himself alienated by his daughter or when he's going to see an old college friend (Danny DeVito, in an utterly thankless role) when he's got no one else to turn to. Koppelman may think he deserves high marks for supposedly being "honest" in delivering a character-oriented piece but it's not character-driven in that every misfortune heaped upon Ben comes on a rote, by-the-numbers schedule -- the bottom keeps dropping on him so many times and in such frequent intervals that it's downright borderline insulting to the viewer wise enough not to buy into this overly-calculated manipulation that Koppelman keeps uncouthly pushing on us. Koppelman panders down to his audience and crowds them, refusing to let us get our own take on a scene; everything's been myopically mapped out to get a canned, easy response. There's not a whisper of spontaneity anywhere in the picture. And as a co-director, working with David Levien, the camera placements and movements are right out of a manual -- they never accentuate anything visually and aren't in the least bit expressive. Like the writing, it pinpoints rather than penetrates. While it's always rewarding to see Douglas triumph (he's in every single scene), here's hoping next time he chooses a project that's more about the picture as a whole than just his own central part.

Alternative: Check out Douglas in "Wonder Boys", which still looks to me to be the best of its decade.

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