Michael Douglas is old.
Ben Kalmen, the former car dealer he’s playing in Solitary Man, opening exclusively at Landmark’s The Magnolia today, acts as though he’s a young man. He aggressively denies his age, which appears to be somewhere in the late 50s to early 60s. He stalks young women like a starving, sly lion, preying upon the weak and vulnerable. And he dispenses wisdom like candy to college-aged young men (see Jesse Eisenberg, above), who eat it up. Beneath his sleazy exterior, however, lies … wait for it … an even sleazier heart.
Forget Douglas’ wicked, confident take on Gordon Gekko, the Wall Street rationalist for ‘good greed.’ Ignore his portrayal of the adulterating Dan Gallagher in Fatal Attraction. Set aside the abrasive businessman Tom Sanders in Disclosure. In the person of Ben Kalmen, we have the culmination of a career playing well-oiled heels. Ben rose to prominence in New York area, we are told, because he advertised himself as an honest car dealer. Then he threw it all away with colossal corporate theft and was convicted of fraud. Now he can’t get a car dealership to save his life and is rapidly running out of his accumulated — or ill-gotten — life savings. He and his wife (Susan Sarandon) divorced, his daughter Susan (Jenna Fischer) resents him for ignoring her throughout most of her life, and his friends are nowhere in sight.
What he does have is a well-connected, well-off lover named Jordan (Mary-Louise Parker), who seems satisfied with their relationship. Ben is not necessarily happy — else why would he cheat on her constantly? — but he seems to appreciate the security of having a lover available on a regular basis. He gets into trouble, though, when he accompanies Jordan’s fetching daughter Allyson (Imogen Poots) on a weekend trip for a college interview. In his wealthier former life, Ben donated enough money to the college to get a library named after him, and knows the dean, and so Jordan fairly insists that Ben make the trip to look after Allyson. Ben being Ben, he quickly finds an admirer in his tour guide, Daniel (Jesse Eisenberg), and tries to push him toward the lecherous lifestyle he espouses. When Ben meets up with Allyson later that night, he can’t resist pitching her a little woo …
If Ben made you queasy before he hits on his lover’s teenage daughter, you better keep a vomit bucket handy.
Perhaps unfairly, Douglas has never struck me as a particular good actor. Like his father Kirk, who he increasingly resembles, he’s a movie star who’s been capable of lighting up the screen in the past more with his outsized personality than his convincing character work. With Michael Douglas, you never forget you’re watching a performance: the daring, dashing, handsome man who supposedly oozes charm has always played variations on his public persona.
That’s not entirely a bad thing; he’s certainly entertaining. Yet in essaying a selfish, selfish character, who often acts in a despicable manner, Douglas can’t quite get beneath the surface. We watch other people revolving around him, all good actors playing decent characters, and they seem convinced, swayed, or seduced by some irreducible kernel of truth in Ben Kalmen. Except that it never becomes apparent what they see in him.
For that deficiency, Brian Koppelman (writer and co-director) and David Levien (co-director) share responsibility. The script is very good at showing how bad Ben can be, but isn’t very illuminating about depicting his redeeming qualities, if any. The direction, however, is very fine, never getting in the way of the drama.
And in the spirited interactions between Ben and his old friend Jimmy (Danny DeVito), we get a peek at what might have been, if only the movie had centered on those two. Douglas and DeVito have great, unforced chemistry in their comic banter, and display dead-eyed honesty when speaking to each other. Other smaller roles are inhabited with great effect by Poots (smoking hot intensity), Fischer (surprisingly convincing and dramatic), and Olivia Thirlby (really just a cameo, but a good one).
The lure of Michael Douglas as a disgraced car dealer raging against the light makes you come to Solitary Man; it’s all the other characters, though, who redeem the experience.
[More information is available at the film’s official site.]