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Solitary Man

Director: Brian Koppelman, David Levien
Cast: Michael Douglas, Susan Sarandon, Danny DeVito, Mary-Louise Parker, Jenna Fischer, Imogen Poots, Jesse Eisenberg, Richard Schiff, Ben Shenkman

(Millennium Films, Smartest Man Productions; US DVD: 7 Sep 2010)

Solitary Man, a well-paced drama with timely dark comic moments, should stand out from the pack of smaller films, thanks to its incredible cast.  I mean, this lineup would be a dream for award-winning ensemble directors like Woody Allen, Martin Scorsese, and the late Robert Altman.  It has an appropriate mix of veterans including Susan Sarandon and Danny Devito, newbies like Jesse Eisenberg and Imogen Poots, and a few in-betweens on the brink of being movie stars in Mary-Louise Parker and Jenna Fischer.

It certainly helps that they all work the hell out of their 15-minutes of screen time, but with a cast eclectic enough to draw a range of fans, it’s rare that even an Oscar-winning lead actor with the majority of scenes would steal the picture. Those little supporting roles can capture all the fun by getting the juiciest lines or capitalizing on the “less is more” dynamic.  They become the critical darlings while the lead gets curt recognition while still carrying the film. Michael Douglas doesn’t let that happen.

As Ben Kalmen, a disgraced former car salesman who starts sleeping with half of New York after getting some troublesome medical reports, Douglas is in a prime position to deliver a magnetic performance. Kalmen is a cocky, self-obsessed ass who’s begging for redemption. In any other movie, he’d get it, too. He would have first charmed us as a playboy, then crossed us as a parent, and finally won us over by making a heartfelt apology and earning back the respect of his peers, family, and most importantly, himself.

This might be the popular way of doing things in Hollywood, but it’s not how things are done here. Sure, he charms us to a point (come on – it’s Michael freakin’ Douglas), but director David Levien and writer/director Brian Koppelman create an atmosphere early on of brutal truth and honesty. Kalman prides himself on being a straight talker even if his words hurt more than they help. The film emulates his style. There are no easy answers, here. Right and wrong are only as clear as the viewer sees fit.

Those stuck on seeing Douglas as their pure, clean hero may be frustrated by the film’s unpredictability and even more so by the unlikeable lead, but the mix-ups should be more refreshing when seen with the sterling performances and choice bits of humor. There are similar movies that allow you to kick back and enjoy without thinking too much about, well, anything. Solitary Man demands more by choosing the harder path.

Thankfully, everyone involved is well suited to walk the walk. Douglas embraces his role wholeheartedly. There are no awkward glances, confused stares, or slouching shoulders.  Douglas plays Kalmen with the air of confidence needed for a man certain in the decisions others constantly question. The chinks in his armor are just that – small cracks in an otherwise flawless shell. Maybe there’s a head bob here or an exasperated eye roll there, but these gestures don’t show up until the final act of the film. Kalmen is so resolute in his lifestyle; he almost makes you see it his way.

The rest of the cast is there to keep your head straight, and they do their jobs quite well with the help of some astute writing. Susan Sarandon plays Kalmen’s ex-wife Nancy with an appropriate sense of knowing akin to most wives, mothers, and intelligent women everywhere. She knows what’s best for her ex-husband, but that doesn’t mean she can get through to him or evens wants to let him know. His daughter is much more forceful with her approach. Though she’s forgiving to a fault, Jenna Fischer’s Susan has a breaking point that arrives with certitude reminiscent of her father. 

Everyone else is either a spurned lover or friend. Mary-Louise Parker, Imogen Poots, and Jesse Eisenberg all play characters who see the worst sides of Ben and bail accordingly. Well, maybe not Eisenberg’s Daniel, who, like Danny DeVito’s college pal Jimmy, doesn’t ditch Ben as fast as most. Both characters are willing to listen to his narcissistic pandering more than the rest. Yes, Ben eventually learns from these accepting people, but that doesn’t mean he has regrets.

It also doesn’t imply we get many answers about our man of action. Solitary Man is a character study, not a lesson in morals. It’s taking the thorny position of focusing on a powerful auto dealer who ruined the lives of many who purchased his product.  It has obvious similarities to today’s world of CEO scam artists, but there’s no bailout coming for Ben Kalmen. 

On the other hand, it’s not trying to preach to us about taking his side. It’s personal and independent, which just happens to make it incredibly touching and poignant. The cast – oh wait, did I mention them? – certainly helps, too. If the disc came with more than an 11-minute making-of feature, Solitary Man just might be the whole package.


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Ben Travers is an awards season analyst and prognosticator with a devout interest in all things film & TV. Mr. Travers lives in Los Angeles as an experienced writer and filmmaker with an extensive portfolio of coverage, including thorough reporting on the Academy Awards, weekly box office reports, and more reviews written than will ever be read. He is a graduate of the University of Iowa with degrees in both journalism and cinema.

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