Sunday, October 24, 2010

Solitary Man Movie Review: Wonderful and Subtle Performance by Michael Douglas

Michael Douglas and Susan Sarandon in a particularly tender and bittersweet moment in Solitary Man.

Ben Kalmen (Michael Douglas), the character referred to in the title of this year’s Solitary Man, is like Grady Tripp from Wonder Boys meets Gordon Gekko of Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps. When we meet him, his life is spiraling out of control and his decisions over the next few months will continue to drive him further and further downward. Most of his troubles are the result of some illegal business practices within his chain of very successful car dealerships in the New York tri-state area.

Ben used to be famous for being an honest business man. He had everything and even donated enough money to his alma mater up in Boston to have the library renamed in his honor. But then a health crisis caused him to reevaluate his decision making process and things went south in a hurry.

He is divorced from Nancy (Susan Sarandon), a kind and decent woman. They have a daughter, Susan (Jenna Fischer), who remains guardedly close to her father in the interest of her son, who adores his grandfather. But Susan knows her father maybe can’t be entirely trusted to always be there. He’s got a steady girlfriend, Jordan (Mary-Louise Parker), but he regularly cheats on her, including a one night fling with her 18 year old daughter, Allyson (Imogen Poots) when he accompanies her to his old college, a trip whose purpose is twofold: she has an admissions interview and he wants to glad-hand some people to help him get a new dealership set up.

Getting the town’s approval to open a business on prime real estate is the key to Ben’s getting back on his feet. But Allyson, in a two-pronged attack on both him and her mother, tells Jordan about their night together. Jordan’s father, you see, had exerted his powerful influence over the town board to approve Ben’s plans. But all that changes and Ben finds himself broke and nearly alone.

It’s significant that at his moment of deepest desperation he returns to his old college, the place where he once felt comfortable with himself, where his learning to overcome youthful timidity eventually made him such a successful salesman. The university is also where he still has the only people he can call friends. They are Cheston (Jesse Eisenberg), an undergraduate who receives some important advice from Ben early in the film, and Jimmy Merino (Danny DeVito) the local diner owner whom Ben knew thirty years ago. The truth is that these two men remain Ben’s friends only because they don’t really know him well, but Cheston will get a taste of the real Ben before the end.

As a character study, Solitary Man does just about everything right. Screenwriter Brian Koppelman really knows this character and Douglas plays him close to the chest. We don’t ever quite warm to Ben as a decent human being, but Douglas gives him just enough humanity (above all in his feelings toward his grandson even if he doesn’t always do the right things). Ben is not really a nice guy. Maybe he was once upon a time, according to the people in his life, but now he’s self-serving and manipulative. It’s hard as an audience member to stick with a guy who seems to go out of his way to disdain his relationships, but that’s the triumph of acting and perhaps to some small extent of Koppelman’s and David Levien’s directing.

The film’s weaknesses, however, are in Koppelman’s inability to place this character in a fitting story. He seems to have taken all the clich├ęs from stories about down and out characters and thrown them into the narrative, but without earning them. That Allyson jumps into bed with him so quickly is somewhat believable, but then we realize it was contrived to move Ben into a position where he wouldn’t get his dealership. Later Susan turns on Ben for a transgression that is 1) none of her business whatsoever and 2) not something that any reasonable person would use as an excuse to cut ties with her father. That she tosses him out of her life so quickly and with such impunity forces us to call into question the legitimacy of the apparent strong bond they had before.

Ben eventually offers a half-hearted mea culpa explanation to Nancy, the one person who might be capable of saving him from himself, for his behavior over the last few years. There is a scene between the two of them, in the spot where they met as college students, that brings out the best not only in these two characters but of Douglas and Sarandon – two old pros who’ve been in the business for many years. The scene allows the two actors to display a tenderness that is rarely seen in his characters.

The closing moments of the film may leave many people unsatisfied. I can only say that, as in life, not all fictional stories have packaged conclusions. The thing you have to ask yourself is, “What would be an alternative satisfactory ending?” I believe it works for this film, but I can’t help feeling that Koppelman may have written himself into a corner without a decent way out. Come to think of it, that’s sort of Ben Kalmen’s main problem.

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