Monday, July 19, 2010

Movie Review: Solitary Man

Solitary Man ***
Directed by:
Brian Koppelman & David Levien.
Written By: Brian Koppelman.
Starring: Michael Douglas (Ben Kalmen), Susan Sarandon (Nancy Kalmen), Danny DeVito (Jimmy Merino), Mary-Louise Parker (Jordan Karsch), Jenna Fischer (Susan Porter), Imogen Poots (Allyson Karsch), Jesse Eisenberg (Daniel Cheston), Richard Schiff (Steve Heller), Jake Richard Siciliano (Scotty), David Costabile (Gary Porter), Ben Shenkman (Pete Hartofilias), Olivia Thirlby (Cheston's Girlfriend).

There are some roles that seem like an actor just needs to play them. For Michael Douglas, the role of Ben Kalmen in Solitary Man is one of those roles. By now, Douglas has played so many high powered businessmen in expensive suits and slicked back hair, that he can do them in his sleep. I think he is often underrated as an actor, and his performances are often much better than they seem on the surface – he makes everything look so easy, that his skill is often overlooked. Douglas delivers one of his best performances in Solitary Man – a solid movie no doubt, but one that is also a little perfunctory. It needed an actor liked Douglas to make it worthwhile – and Douglas delivers.

When we first meet Kalmen, he is looking at the window of a doctor’s office. His doctor comes in, and Kalmen launches into a spiel about getting him set up in a new car – he is New York’s “Honest Car Dealer” after all, and talking about golf. But his doctor has some bad news for him. One of his tests showed an irregularity, and he’ll need to come for more work. Kalmen drops the act and goes silent. We flash forward 6 and a half years later, and although Kalmen is still putting on his charming act, no one is buying anymore. He lost his car dealerships in some sort of scandal and spent all is money keeping himself out of jail. He has gotten divorced from his wife (Susan Sarandon) and has spent the intervening years screwing anything that moves – preferably younger women, but in a pinch he’ll take anything. His current “girlfriend” is Jordan (Mary Louise Parker) who is dating because her dad is a big shot and can help get him back on track. But Jordan has an 18 year old daughter, Allyson (Imogen Poots), and you know how it is. Even Kalmen’s daughter Susan (Jenna Fischer), who has let him get away with everything is growing tired of him.

I have never seen Douglas look older, saggier than he does in Solitary Man. Yes, Kalmen puts on a good show, trying not to let anyone see how desperate, how broke he is really is, but people can see through him. Even when he goes back to his old University with Allyson to try and pull some strings and get her in, everyone looks at him a little differently. He wants to be make in University – and even takes a young student (Jessie Eisenberg) he meets there under his wing, but he’s pushing 60 now, and instead of being the cool, older guy, he’s just the creepy old man who the kids humor more than anything else. He just cannot admit to himself that he has failed, that he has aged and that he is much closer to end of the his life than the beginning.

Douglas is the reason to see Solitary Man. He is surrounded by a wonderful supporting cast, all doing some excellent work, but their roles seem slightly preprogrammed. They fit neatly into their designated slot as the wise old best friend, loving ex-wife, daughter who puts up with too much, young apprentice, young sexpot, etc. They do their job, which is to support Douglas, and do it well. But this is Douglas’ show, and he carries the movie throughout. Douglas is great when he is in his salesman mode, but he is even better in the films quieter moments – sometimes just sitting by himself which is the only time he really allows himself to let his guard down, and not try and impress everyone.

Somehow I think that when this role was offered to Douglas, he knew he had to do it. This is a smaller film after all – much smaller than we are used to seeing Douglas in. He has built a career since Wall Street as the kind of slick salesman, and has done a great job in a variety of roles. But most of the them, Douglas’ character seem so confident, so assured. Here he plays a guy who simply putting up that front to the world, where all around him things are crumbling. By the end of the movie, he may be ready to move on, to grow up and accept his life for what it is. For Ben Kalmen, that counts as a small miracle.

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