Friday, September 24, 2010
Directors: Brian Koppelman and David Levien
Starring: Michael Douglas, Mary-Louise Parker, Jenna Fischer, Jesse Eisenberg, Imogen Poots, Susan Sarandon, Danny DeVito, Olivia Thirlby
Running Time: 90 min.
★★★ (out of ★★★★)
It's almost impossible to watch the dark comedy, Solitary Man without viewing it as a biographical account of star Michael Douglas' life, or at least what the public has been led to believe his life is, regardless of whether that assumption is true. You may as well as well title the movie, This is Your Life, Michael Douglas since the events that occur in it bear such an eerie resemblance to past and current headlines surrounding the actor. But focusing exclusively on that would be ignoring the fact that he's long been one of our most under-appreciated actors, only further proving it here with his best performance in years.
In kind of a cross between his slick tycoon Gordon Gekko in Wall Street and disheveled literary failure Grady Tripp in Wonder Boys, this might be his slimiest role yet, as a good portion of the movie is a creep fest featuring Douglas' character engaging in behavior that will be off-putting (to say the least) for viewers. The film's main asset is not shying away from that by presenting an unflinching story about a man with a serious problem that won't go away until he wants it to. While it's a small-scale, modest achievement that doesn't do anything special, it doesn't need to because the lead refuses to plead for sympathy with his portrayal and the filmmakers surround him with an all-star cast, while balancing some tricky material.
Douglas is formerly successful car dealer Ben Kalmen, whose life took a turn for the worse after finding out he could have a heart ailment, made questionable business decisions that lost him his fortune and romantic indiscretions led to the collapse of his marriage to wife Nancy (Susan Sarandon). Now, six years later, he's still feeling the repercussions, as his daughter Susan (Jenna Fischer) wants nothing to do with him until he starts acting his age and stops chasing younger women. Ben's rare shot at selflessness comes when he's roped into accompanying his girlfriend Jordan's (Mary Louise Parker) 18-year-old daughter Allyson (Imogen Poots) on a college interview at his alma mater where he was an important financial donor. Instead, his behavior escalates to even more embarrassing levels on the trip, resulting in a one-night stand with Allyson that might be the creepiest hook-up this side of Lolita. Even his misguided attempts to mentor shy, nerdy student Daniel (played by Jesse Eisenberg) go haywire and the campus visit somehow finds Ben in worse shape than when he left. At a crossroads, he has to decide which direction he'll go.
Playing an aging lothario is nothing new for Douglas but most of the big studio movies he stars in lack the self-awareness he has in playing it, which hurts him as an actor by falsely perpetuating the unfair myth that it's the only part he's capable of playing. Writer (and Co-Director) Brian Koppelman's script share that awareness, fully acknowledging a 60-year-old man scouring a college campus for some action is not okay and extremely creepy. And so does every character except Ben. It always seems that smaller, more character driven films like this are better suited to tap into Douglas' overlooked strengths as a performer, playing a man who's coasts on his charm until it completely runs its course. Faced with his own mortality, Ben chooses not to face it and act out in humiliating ways, yet the actor still manages to make Ben charming and likable enough to root for despite all his character faults.
The film returns Douglas to the academic setting that resulted in his greatest performance a decade ago, but this time under very different circumstances and as half of what should be a dream team pairing with Eisenberg. Just the idea of Douglas prowling dormitory halls with Eisenberg while giving him unsolicited advice on how to pick up girls is alone worth the price of a DVD rental. Had their scenes together comprised the entire movie I wouldn't have complained, but it's just a small part of a bigger picture. The ads and trailers practically imply a buddy comedy with the two but Eisenberg's role, while mildly important, is essentially a thinly drawn cameo variation on his sensitive, geeky characters from Adventureland and Zombieland, but in a lower key. The supporting star is British actress Imogen Poots (what a name), who in addition to flawlessly pulling off an American accent, navigates a tough, complex role in Allyson, the quasi-love interest of Ben who's conniving and damaged enough to meet him at his level even though she's young enough to be his granddaughter. The cast is loaded with familiar faces fighting for screen time but all are incorporated well and make big impressions with what they're given, especially Mary Louise Parker as Ben's scorned girlfriend and Olivia Thirlby who appears late in the film as Daniel's love interest. There's also a nice sub-plot with Danny DeVito, who plays an old college buddy of Ben's, which takes on an extra layer when you consider Douglas' real-life friendship with the actor.
As obvious as it is to point out, the movie's title couldn't be more appropriate for a story centering on a protagonist who's become an island unto himself, pushing away anyone willing to help. Thankfully, the script stays consistent to the end, avoiding any kind of force-fed redemption or easy resolution that would feel like an unearned cheat or betrayal of the film's themes. Outside of Douglas' performance, it doesn't stand out from other efforts in this genre, coming off as neither memorable nor completely forgettable, but it intelligently deals with a lot of issues that had to hit close to home for him, and us. Calling Solitary Man a small character piece may seem condescending, if that wasn't exactly what it is. It's a well written drama about real people struggling with real problems, and it never hurts to see more of those.