In the opening scene of Solitary Man, Ben Kalmen (Michael Douglas) is talking to his doctor before an appointment. The wealthy owner of a successful car dealership, Kalmen has the demeanor of a used car salesman. Even as the doctor repeatedly tries to usher him into the examination room, he can’t stop droning on, hardly noticing another person might be involved in his conversation.
For a character about to learn a hard life lesson, such narcissism is both mundane and conspicuous. And even as Kalmen provides Douglas with his most compelling role in more than a decade, it also sets the scene for the fitfully funny but mostly painful story to come. For it’s not long after this conversation that Kalmen’s world comes crashing down around him. The doctor sees an irregularity on his EKG. He wants to run more tests. But Kalmen has stopped listening.
When the film abruptly cuts ahead six and a half years, we discover that he never went back for the additional tests. By deciding not to know whether or not he was dying, Kalmen has allowed himself to behave as if he could drop dead at any moment. But unlike the typical Hollywood arc of the dying man who decides to live a better life, Kalmen’s self-imposed reality sends him on a steady spiral of self-destructive behavior that is rapidly approaching bottom when we rejoin his story.
As directed by David Levien and Brian Koppelman from a script by Koppelman, Solitary Man is sharply focused on Kalmen’s agonizingly slow road to self-awareness. And Douglas makes the most of this chance at a complicated character study. Though he has a long career as a leading man, Douglas’ performances have typically seemed too shifty and oily to be wholly heroic (he comes closest to an exception in the Romancing the Stone films). In Solitary Man, he’s playing the leading man who’s gotten old and now must reassess. This premise follows a pattern set by many of his contemporaries, most notably Jack Nicholson in As Good As It Gets, Bill Murray in Lost in Translation, and Paul Newman in Nobody’s Fool. That’s not to say this movie is as nuanced as any of those, but it does avoid the cliché of redeeming Kalmen via the attention of a much younger woman.
An outstanding cast surrounds Douglas, but their characters are defined almost exclusively through their relationships with Kalmen. At times, it feels like A Christmas Carol, where one ghost after another parachutes in to deliver chunks of his lesson. Nancy (Susan Sarandon) is Kalmen’s ex-wife and should be the most wounded by his post-crisis activities, which include cheating on her and being publicly shamed as a corrupt businessman. Instead, she regards him with a benign tolerance that borders on respect. Kalmen’s daughter (Jenna Fischer) also enables her father, though she does eventually call him to task for his behavior. Jesse Eisenberg, Imogen Poots, Olivia Thirlby, and Danny DeVito all take turns as the angel on Kalmen’s shoulder, gently nudging him toward decency.
This nudging characterizes a problem with Solitary Man: no one seems too put out by Kalmen’s bad behavior. He has hurt so many people, but most of them react with a shrug and a smile. Only his current girlfriend Jordan (an underutilized Mary Louise-Parker) hits him back—hard—after he does something particularly reprehensible and therefore comes closest to getting him to reevaluate his life.
But self-evaluation is not Kalmen’s strong suit at any point in this film. He says that his possibly serious medical condition was not an excuse, but the film suggests exactly the opposite. This is an exegesis on corruption that lays the blame squarely on the injustice of mortality. It is never clear if we are expected to forgive Kalmen’s actions or pity him. The only thing that is clear is that, even if he is surrounded by family and friends who care for him despite himself, Kalmen is completely alone.