Movie Review: Solitary Man
Meet Ben Kalmen, “New York’s (formerly) honest car salesman.” Six years ago, an EKG found a problem with his heart and he immediately fled the scene, never returning to a hospital again. You see, Ben’s not the kind of guy who wants to know when he’s going to die. Since then, his life has been a steady binge of divorcees less than half his age and rather shady business practices.
Ben used to have an empire of car lots in New York City. He even made the cover of Forbes magazine. He used to have a loving wife, played warmly by Susan Sarandon. She was “one of the good ones” as he would say. But it isn’t until his current girlfriend (Mary -Louise Parker of “Weeds”) asks him to accompany her daughter (Imogen Poots) on a college visit that he finally hits rock bottom.
The trip starts out fine. Ben checks out college-aged cuties, takes a student (Zombieland‘s Jesse Eisenberg) under his wing and reminisces with an old buddy (Danny DeVito). Then Ben does the unthinkable and sleeps with his girlfriend’s daughter. Now he’s jobless, homeless and is forced to ask his own daughter (Jenna Fischer of “The Office”) to loan him money for rent.
Ben Kalmen is one of those characters that seems so perfectly tailored to one actor that it is impossible to imagine anyone else in the role. Recent examples that come to mind are Mickey Rourke’s Randy “The Ram” Robinson (The Wrestler) and Jeff Bridges’ Bad Blake (Crazy Heart). Michael Douglas has played similar characters in the past (Wall Street‘s Gordon Dekko obviously comes to mind), but Solitary Man asks him to harness his usual bravado and arrogance into a miserable character who shows a mere glimmer of a man who at one time could command the attention of an entire room. He answers the call brilliantly.
There are some cliché moments along the way (seriously, has a movie character ever NOT been late for a family member’s birthday party?), but the script by Brian Koppellman (who also co-directed with David Levien) is otherwise very natural and features just enough sprinkles of humor without it ever feeling forced. We don’t get to know the back story on all of Ben’s mistakes or every detail about the people we see him meet, but we don’t need to. We get just enough to keep the story moving forward. Oh, and the opening credit sequence set to the music of Johnny Cash is the best I’ve seen since Watchmen.
This film is a vivid portrait of desperation and discontent and it takes a special actor to be able to remain suave on the outside when all he is feeling on the inside is shame and regret. There’s nothing shameful about Douglas’s performance, however. He lays it all on the line here, not afraid to look old or worn down. But make no mistake, Douglas is still the Sultan of Sleaze. There aren’t a lot of 60-year-olds who can attend frat parties and talk about sexual needs without appearing awkward.
Had Solitary Man been released in December, Michael Douglas would be getting all sorts of Oscar buzz for his performance. I’m hoping he gets it anyway.
RIYL: The Wrestler, Lost in Translation, Crazy Heart.