Michael Douglas plays a character who learns he has a “heart irregularity” in the new independent drama Solitary Man. In the context of the story, the concern is literal, medical, but it’s also a diagnosis of his social ill and, in a way, describes the winning idiosyncrasy of the film, which resists comforting sentiment.
Directed by Brian Koppleman and David Levien from an original script by Koppleman, Solitary Man is the story of Ben Kalmen, a hugely successful car dealer brought low after he indulges in slippery accounting and begins cheating on his wife (Susan Sarandon). Kalmen’s life-changing mistakes all came in the wake of his frightful diagnosis, raising the question of whether a self-awareness of his mortality has liberated him or damagingly unmoored him from the good life. The answer appears to be “both,” in ways dramatized over the course of ninety minutes.
Six-and-a-half years after his semi-diagnosis, Ben is outwardly upbeat but shows signs of wear and tear. Having refused any follow-ups or treatment (other than a daily self-medication of two baby aspirin), Ben has a girlfriend (Mary Louise-Parker) twenty years his junior and a plan to get himself back on top in the auto biz; the two are not unrelated, as the girlfriend’s father is well-connected to make Kalmen’s dreams of corporate redemption come true. The truth is that Kalmen is a womanizing grandfather sensitive about his age (he asks his grandson to call him “Dad” in public, lest the boy ruin any potential pick-ups in the vicinity).
With the ladies and even more so in business, Ben is a font of talk or, less charitably, b.s. The way he figures it, his acting out is simply living in the moment, but it’s clear to his family that he’s as much a self-destructive man as a self-made one. His issues come to a head when accompanying his girlfriend’s daughter (Imogen Poots) on her college weekend at his alma mater. The library bears his name, but the school is wary of Kalmen and his all-too-public moral failings. The minute he steps on campus, he engages in a fistfight with a student, and it’s not long before he’s a little too vigorously chatting up co-eds. Ben further pumps up his ego by counseling his nerdy campus guide (Jesse Eisenberg) on scoring with women.
When Ben commits a present indiscretion that further proves his attraction to risk, his downward spiral begins to look more and more like a tailspin. He alienates his girlfriend, business partners, and daughter (Jenna Fischer), who decries his unreliability and comes to think he needs psychiatric help, which he refuses. A rare bright spot comes from the unconditional friendship of a classmate (Danny De Vito) Ben has neglected for thirty years; real-life pals Douglas and De Vito pair exceedingly well, for a few surprisingly soft-spoken, deeply felt scenes.
Douglas adeptly embodies his character’s every smarmy compensation, and the neediness he spryly repurposes as a kind of charm. He’s dancing as fast as he can, but the floor is quicksand. Wry and melancholic, Solitary Man recalls Wonder Boys as a character-study showcase worthy of Douglas’ ability.
[This review first appeared in Palo Alto Weekly.]