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Solitary Man (A Movie Review)


Starring Michael Douglas, Mary-Louise Parker, Jenna Fischer, Jesse Eisenberg, Imogen Poots, Ben Shenkman, David Costabile, Susan Sarandon, Danny DeVito, Arthur Nascarella, Alex Kaluzhsky, Anjelia Pelay, Richard Schiff, Anastasia Griffith, Bruce Altman, Gillian Jacobs and Olivia Thirlby.

Screenplay by Brian Koppelman.

Directed by Brian Koppelman and David Levien.

Distributed by Millennium Films. 90 minutes. Rated R.

Michael Douglas is as good as any actor working at portraying the moral and ethical dilemmas of aging men. He has made something of a specialty of the role in fact: often portraying men who adapt shallow, greedy, sensation-driven lifestyles as an attempt to stave off time, competition and eventually death.

There is almost a tragic undertone to the way that Douglas’ characters grasp at a lifestyle that is naturally slipping away from them – that of respect, affluence and occasional hedonism. Sleeping with younger women does not make you younger – it just makes you a daddy (or granddaddy) figure.

Yet Douglas plays the role with such sincerity, self-depreciation, and charm that he almost never comes off as being as slimy as his characters’ acts. The guys may say and do horrible things, but we want to believe in the ultimate good heartedness deep inside of them.

Now, leading up to the reappearance of Douglas’ ultimate alpha-male character, Gordon Gekko in the sequel Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps, Douglas bites into his juiciest role since the brilliant Wonder Boys a decade ago.

Solitary Man – named after one of the greatest love-gone-wrong tunes ever (Johnny Cash’s version of the song is used over the opening credits) – is actually kind of a misnomer. Ben Kalmen may be lonely, but he is almost never alone. In fact, he seems to have a disturbing compulsion to be surrounded by other people whenever possible. He has family, friends and a seemingly-never-ending stream of women circling his universe. He tends to horribly disappoint them and often at least temporarily repel them – but his family and friends usually forgive him his peccadilloes (the women, on the other hand, usually don’t).

Kalmen is an aging businessman – the owner of several car dealerships who has wealth, a long marriage with his college sweetheart (Susan Sarandon) and even some notoriety from his hard-sell appearances in local commercials as the "honest dealer." His life seems to be going perfectly. His daughter has gotten married and given him a grandson who adores him, he has just been able to donate money to name the library at his college alma mater after himself.

The film starts with Kalmen having a normal checkup. The doctor looks a little concerned and tells Kalmen he would like him to get some tests, something looks a little wrong. Rather than going to a specialist to get the tests, the guy decides to totally reinvent his lifestyle – on the understanding that death could be right around the corner.

This plot tangent gets added poignancy in the months between the movie’s release and its current DVD debut, because of Douglas’ recent announcement that he has been diagnosed with stage four throat cancer – a diagnoses that had been missed by several doctors over many months, when the condition had been much less severe.

The film flashes forward six or so years from the doctor’s appointment. Kalmen hasn’t been to a doctor since – a daily baby aspirin seems to be the only concession he has made to maintain his health. However, Kalmen’s life has spun out of control. He has just gotten out of jail for frauds which he committed with his businesses – which have been closed down. He has left his wife for a never-ending stream of short-lived affairs with younger women. He has pretty much estranged his daughter (Jenna Fischer) to the point that she is just about ready to cut him out of her life – and that of her son. He is almost out of money and having little luck in trying to find a business or job.

Kalmen is trying to get his life back together and reopen a car dealership. He also agrees to take the teen daughter of his latest girlfriend (Mary Louise Parker) to his old alma mater to show the girl around and help her get into the school. A spectacularly foolish sexual relationship destroys all of those plans, however, while at the school he sees an old college friend (Danny DeVito) who reminds Kalmen of the simpler pleasures of life.

The ending is a little ambiguous. We think we know the direction Kalmen will go, but the film fades to black as he is faced with a figurative (and sort of literal) fork in the road where he can retreat to the safety of the past or he can continue following the potentially self-destructive tendencies that have ruled his life for the last several years.

Then again, much of life is ambiguous. Solitary Man is a smart, funny and occasionally sad look at a man whose insecurity makes him flawed, somewhat unlikeable and at the same time, very recognizably human.

Dave Strohler

Copyright ©2010 All rights reserved. Posted: September 12, 2010.


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