© 2010 Ray Wong
Once in a while there comes a quiet, dialogue-heavy character study that is doomed to fail at the box office but somehow hits us hard as a personal revelation. Solitary Man, like last year's Everybody's Fine (starring Robert De Niro, with a completely different character and story), is such as treat.
Ben Kalman (Michael Douglas) is a car magnate in the New York/New Jersey/Connecticut area. He was once a hot shot, with many powerful and wealthy friends. After he was busted for scamming his customers, he almost lost everything. Now, he's staging his comeback by trying to open a new dealership. Everything seems to be going well for him.
Ben is also a philanderer. His wife Nancy (Susan Sarandon) divorced him after catching him cheating with a myriad of women. In fact, he makes no qualms about sleeping with all these women in front of Nancy and their adult daughter Susan (Jenna Fisher) -- they're used to his bragging but somehow, they still consider him family regardless.
He's dating a rich and powerful divorcee, Jordan (Mary-Louise Parker), who has the connections to get what Ben wants. When Jordan asks Ben to escort her daughter Allyson (Imogen Poots) to a Boston university and to convince the Dean to accept her (Ben is an alumnus and also a significant donor -- there's a library bearing his last name), he reluctantly agrees. Then Ben makes a fatal mistake by sleeping with the calculating Allyson, and thus begins his downfall.
It's a pleasure to see Michael Douglas (Ghosts of the Girlfriends Past) back in the fray in a dramatic role. I've always enjoyed his performances, in films such as Wall Street, Wonder Boys, Traffic and Falling Down. Douglas is at his best when he's not constrained by Hollywood big budget, and when he's playing deeply flawed characters such as Gordon Gekko or Grady Tripp. Lately, though, he's been playing to his Gekko alter-ego, and Ben Kalman is no different. Ben is a difficult man to like -- he tramples over everyone to get what he wants, and his ethics and morals are objectionable. Amazingly, Douglas manages to play the unlikable character with great heart and soul to at least make us empathize with him, if not sympathize. And his character is so interesting that you can't help but stay around to watch what kind of mess he's making.
This is essentially Douglas's show, but the supporting cast is wonderful and makes the story so much more layered and relevant. Susan Sarandon (Speed Racer) is fantastic as Ben's ex-wife, who seems to be resigned to accept her ex for the kind of person he is. At the same time, you can tell how much she still loves him, and hopes for the "man she fell in love with" to return. That makes Ben's character even more despicable, in a way -- how can he give up on such a great woman? Danny DeVito (House Broken) is also in great form as Ben's college friend. The three veteran actors show us experience and talent do make a difference. They're pros and they play off each other expertly.
Mary-Louise Parker (Weeds) is fantastic as the brittle, manipulative Jordon, and somehow her character makes us want to root for Ben, even though he's the one who's in the wrong. Jenna Fisher (The Office) is amiable and sweet as Ben's daughter -- you kind of wonder how a man like him raised a daughter like her (oh well, we forget, her mother is Susan Sarandon!). Her character is kind of a door mat until she stands up for herself and on her son's behalf.
Imogen Poots (28 Weeks Later) stands out (considering the stellar cast, it's rather incredible) as the cold, calculating, unforgiving Allyson. She makes me aware that there are some women you just do not want to screw with, so to speak. Jesse Eisenberg (Zombieland) can play the droll, meek "nice guy" in his sleep. And it's nice to see Richard Schiff (Imagine That) in a minor role as a banker.
Written and directed by Brian Koppelman (co-directed by his Ocean's Thirteen collaborator David Levien), the story feels personal and cautionary. Ben Kalman isn't a very nice man, but under the smooth, slick, even oily surface, you know there's a very lonely, scared, incredibly sensitive guy. The characters are well developed and their relationships believable. One of the best tricks of developing great characters is by focusing on their relationships with other characters, and Koppelman does a great job.
The plot is secondary to the character study -- it's basically a "gradual descent" story about a self-destructive man. We come to understand why he's acting this way, hurting people he loves along the way. The movie is also dialogue-heavy; it could've been an adaptation from a play. The dialogue is remarkably sharp, insightful, and smooth (there's so much background information in the dialogue but we never realize it). As a character piece, the film moves along nicely, never feeling too slow or too fast.
It's not always, however, convincing. I for one don't buy the reasons behind Ben's "acting out" and slow, self-destructing descent. There are scenes that feel contrived, as if the Koppelman wants so hard for us to "get it," that Ben is not a very nice person, and that he has it coming, that we must be prepared to see how far he'd fall. So, sometimes the plot seems excessive and manipulative, and perhaps a bit too convenient.
That said, this truly is a character-driven story with great performances from Douglas, Sarandon, Parker and everyone. Despite some questionable motivation and decisions, the story feels relevant and makes us -- especially us males -- think about what is important: fortune, fame, self-worth, legacy, cheating death, defying aging, sex, power, family? The question is so simple and yet the implications and answers are so complicated. Koppelman doesn't offer any resolutions. It's up to each of us solitary man to decide.
Stars: Michael Douglas, Susan Sarandon, Danny DeVito, Mary-Louise Parker, Jenna Fisher, Imogen Poots, Jesse Eisenberg, Richard Schiff
Directors: Brian Koppelman, David Levien
Writer: Brian Koppleman
Distributor: Anchor Bay
MPAA Rating: R for language, sexuality
Running Time: 90 minutes
Script – 8
Performance – 9
Direction – 7
Cinematography – 7
Editing – 8
Production – 7
Total – 7.4 out of 10