by Richard von Busack
Despite the use of Johnny Cash’s cover version of Neil Diamond’s best song, the film Solitary Man seems like a strange misnomer for Michael Douglas’s latest rogue-male movie. After a few years away from lead roles, solitude is the last quality he’s demonstrating. In his mid-sixties, Douglas is clearly eager for attention, to be both the wisest and the most corrupt man in the room.
Director/scripter Brian Koppelman and co-director David Levien (late of The Girlfriend Experience) intended Solitary Man to be the scarifying story of an out and out New York bastard, driven to selfishness because of his fear of his own mortality.
In the prologue, used-car tycoon Ben Kalmen gets a bad EKG at the doctor’s office… 6 1/2 years later, he’s reaping the results of his immensely bad behavior ever since. He’s broke. He’s divorced (from the ever-patient Susan Sarandon). He’s been wrapped up in a scandal; the scandal is vaguely described, but Kalmen seems to have been in on the same kind of scam William H. Macy had going in Fargo. His daughter distrusts him, though he has a grandson who adores him.
On the plus side, Kalmen is involved with a good-looking shrew of a society lady named Jordan (Mary-Louise Parker). She suggests that Kalmen escort her teenage daughter (Imogen Poots) to his old school in Boston, where he was once an important donor and where he knows the dean. Jordan hopes Kalmen can grease her daughter’s way into college. During the trip, the old man ruins what’s left of his life.
Solitary Man’s rhythms are those of a play—loads of expounding, and loads of quiet listening. The lines all have the audible clicking of a keyboard underneath them. (“Every time I lower the bar of my expectations, you limbo under it.”)
And the film has very little visual inventiveness or visual counterpoint. One clever exception: a flying Frisbee is dubbed with a jet roar, to indicate a transition shot between cities, as well as an establishing shot on a Boston campus quad.
The cooked-up explanation for Ben’s misdeeds make it hard to feel that this bad man is real, let alone an oracle. But he does persist in passing on life lessons to the next generation. And the young are all too ready to listen, especially a callow college student (a maddeningly passive Jesse Eisenberg) who befriends Ben during the college trip and accompanies him to a campus keg party.
In the film’s falsest passage, Kalmen rekindles a friendship with an old pal (Danny DeVito), a humble restaurant owner. DeVito is Solitary Man’s mandatory mensch who assures Kalmen that little guys are still behind him no matter how he behaves.
Douglas does what his father Kirk would do: he makes the mistake of plumping up this harsh material, softening it, playing it bigger than life. It’s constant movie-star grandstanding in a story that might have been worth believing if it took place on a lower key. Strangely, the nation’s critics have been responding to this splashy handling of a small-man’s tale, describing this film as a tour de force. Then again, it is critics– and other actors–who have the most interest in watching a movie star’s force of personality challenging inferior, phony material. In this case, the material wins, swamping Douglas and the rest of the cast.
This film, which is like a dunce’s version of Kurosawa’s Ikiru, is all about movies, right up into the end shot. There Douglas replays George Clooney’s silent meditative last minutes in Michael Clayton. But it’s not the movieish, vainglorious performance that makes Solitary Man such a celebration of a mawkish yet sexually aggressive character—a lewd Jack Lemmon. It’s the conviction that we’ll admire a bad man’s refusal to act his age, emulating a movie industry where so few actors really do.