Friday, September 3, 2010

Solitary Man

In movies there is often a certain romance associated with people who live every day like it may be their last, who live like there is no tomorrow. Film celebrates those people who just say fuck it, seize the day, and go after what they want with reckless abandon. The dark comedy “Solitary Man” ventures show the other side of that. It shows the loneliness, the broken relationships, the burned bridges, and the pain left behind.

Ben Kalmen (Michael Douglas) is a wildly successful, fast-talking car salesman who isn’t afraid to fight a college Frisbee golfer. During a routine checkup his doctor notices an irregularity in his EKG. Instead of letting the doctor run more tests, Ben walks out the door to live like he wants until his heart explodes in his chest.

Six and a half years later, Ben’s life is in the crapper. He’s divorced from his wife (Susan Sarandon) because of numerous infidelities, got busted for scamming auto manufacturers, barely has a relationship with his daughter (Jenna Fischer) and grandson, is dating a woman (Mary-Louise Parker) just because of her business connections, and he tries to bang every 19 year-old he stumbles across.

He’s a lecherous bastard who’s been able to coast along on his charm and charisma, but things take a sharp downward turn when he accompanies Allyson (Imogen Poots), his girlfriend’s daughter, on a visit to his alma mater in Boston. There he meets Cheston (Jesse Eisenberg), a geeky loner for Ben to mentor in the ways of love, and has a one-night stand with Allyson.

That’s critical mass. Right there is where the accumulation of all the horrible things he has done in is life finally begins to overshadow his magnetism, and people become unwilling to tolerate his bullshit. His girlfriend kicks him to the curb, his daughter won’t float him money for rent, his ex-wife makes if very clear that she has moved on, he has no reputation left to lean on, and his attempt to open a new dealership falls flat. Ben goes from a guy with his name on a college library to working in a sandwich shop for Danny DeVito and drunkenly hitting on co-eds at frat parties.

Douglas is terrific as an aging man whose life unravels because of the choices he made. His work is up there with his most memorable roles, like “Wall Street”, “Falling Down”, and “Wonder Boys”. He does awful things that take him to the brink of being unredeemable, but he manages to be personable and engaging the entire time. In other hands Ben might have been beyond rescue, but Douglas infuses him with a humanity that underlies, and eventually shine through the surface arrogance.

The rest of cast is great, as you would expect from the names involved. Poots stands her ground admirably in her scenes with Douglas, and once again Eisenberg shows that he’s like Michael Cera with range. Even the one-off, single scene characters are well cast. I guess when Michael Douglas is your star and Stephen Soderberg is one of your producers, people want to be in your movie.

“Solitary Man” is pretty good, but despite the level of talent and the quality of the performances involved, the story is too uneven and scattered for the film to take that next step up in quality. It’s fine for the early part of the movie, it can ride on Douglas’s shoulders, but after a while the lack of focus and narrative thrust catch up, and the movie starts to drag. In that way the story mimics Ben. It is engaging at first, and you find yourself drawn in, but eventually being slick and charming isn’t enough. If directors David Levien and Brian Koppelman (who wrote the script) had pared down some of the peripheral threads, it would have given the film a more even flow, the pace would have been better, and instead of being just pretty good, it could have been something really special.

The DVD comes with a run-of-the-mill behind-the-scenes feature where the cast and crew say nice things about each other without actually saying anything. The commentary track with Levien, Koppelman, and their buddy, Douglas McGrath, who has a line or two in the film, is fun. It is mostly the three of them shooting the shit, talking about their process, and exchanging anecdotes.

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