As tired as I am of watching withered male egos chasing skirts to feel young again, Michael Douglas sure knows how to play them. In Solitary Man, Douglas plays Ben Kalmen, a failed car salesman and failed husband in failing health. He has the emotional maturity of a college kid, which is why, while escorting his girlfriend's daughter, Allyson (Imogen Poots), to her interview, he so easily enters into a tussle with a frolfing frat boy on a college lawn. When he woos and beds Allyson that same night, the event and fallout are as predictable as watching a dog finally catch his tail and bite down really, really hard.
Allyson's mother (the pitch-perfect Mary Louise Parker) finds out about the tryst and withdraws her family's support for Ben's business, effectively ensuring his financial downfall. Still, Ben keeps us from feeling too sorry for Ben. We learn from his exasperated daughter (Jenna Fischer) that he was only in the relationship for the business connections, and he only needs those business connections because he drove his former business into the ground with a hearty batch of book-cooking.
Solitary Man's opening scene gives us some insight into why Ben's life has spiraled off track. In one of the best-written scenes in the movie, Ben stands with his doctor in the consultation room before his EKG, palpable fear and anxiety growing as he talks glibly over his doctor. It is a poignantly humorous moment, where we see one ambit of Ben's life he cannot control, one situation his silver tongue can't talk through.
The rest of the movie takes place six and a half years later, as Ben makes time with younger women who haven't gotten too "thick" yet and occasionally tries to smooth-talk his way back into the car dealership business. But soon he finds himself working in a deli, crashing on the couch of an old college friend (Danny Devito), and totally cut off from his daughter and grandson. Only in the final scene, reminiscing with his college sweetheart and ex-wife (Susan Sarandon), do we fully understand the connection between the first scene and Ben's rapid undoing. The explanation is a little simple, but it fits with Ben's simple character: an arrogant man faced with his own mortality.
The film was written by Brian Koppelman and directed by Koppelman and David Levien. With an all-star cast, the script comes to life in a variety of brilliant characters. Unfortunately, the vilest character is the one we spend the most time with. In one scene, Ben sits on a bench, deciding whether or not to make right his wrongs. He eyes a young woman walking by and stands up to a flourish of charged music. Will Ben change? He's almost too egotistical for me to care, but for the sake of the characters around him, I hope the answer is "yes."
Opens Friday, June 25th