'Solitary Man': Irregularities

Michael Landweber

Solitary Man is an exegesis on corruption that lays the blame squarely on the injustice of mortality.

Solitary Man

Director: Brian Koppelman, David Levien
Cast: Michael Douglas, Susan Sarandon, Jenna Fischer, Mary-Louise Parker
Rated: R
Studio: Universal Pictures
Year: 2010
US date: 2010-05-21

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.


From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.

60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

Keep reading... Show less

The year in song reflected the state of the world around us. Here are the 70 songs that spoke to us this year.

70. The Horrors - "Machine"

On their fifth album V, the Horrors expand on the bright, psychedelic territory they explored with Luminous, anchoring the ten new tracks with retro synths and guitar fuzz freakouts. "Machine" is the delicious outlier and the most vitriolic cut on the record, with Faris Badwan belting out accusations to the song's subject, who may even be us. The concept of alienation is nothing new, but here the Brits incorporate a beautiful metaphor of an insect trapped in amber as an illustration of the human caught within modernity. Whether our trappings are technological, psychological, or something else entirely makes the statement all the more chilling. - Tristan Kneschke

Keep reading... Show less

Net Neutrality and the Music Ecosystem: Defending the Last Mile

Still from Whiplash (2014) (Photo by Daniel McFadden - © Courtesy of Sundance Institute) (IMDB)

"...when the history books get written about this era, they'll show that the music community recognized the potential impacts and were strong leaders." An interview with Kevin Erickson of Future of Music Coalition.

Last week, the musician Phil Elverum, a.k.a. Mount Eerie, celebrated the fact that his album A Crow Looked at Me had been ranked #3 on the New York Times' Best of 2017 list. You might expect that high praise from the prestigious newspaper would result in a significant spike in album sales. In a tweet, Elverum divulged that since making the list, he'd sold…six. Six copies.

Keep reading... Show less

Under the lens of cultural and historical context, as well as understanding the reflective nature of popular culture, it's hard not to read this film as a cautionary tale about the limitations of isolationism.

I recently spoke to a class full of students about Plato's "Allegory of the Cave". Actually, I mentioned Plato's "Allegory of the Cave" by prefacing that I understood the likelihood that no one had read it. Fortunately, two students had, which brought mild temporary relief. In an effort to close the gap of understanding (perhaps more a canyon or uncanny valley) I made the popular quick comparison between Plato's often cited work and the Wachowski siblings' cinema spectacle, The Matrix. What I didn't anticipate in that moment was complete and utter dissociation observable in collective wide-eyed stares. Example by comparison lost. Not a single student in a class of undergraduates had partaken of The Matrix in all its Dystopic future shock and CGI kung fu technobabble philosophy. My muted response in that moment: Whoa!

Keep reading... Show less

'The Art of Confession' Ties Together Threads of Performance

Allen Ginsberg and Robert Lowell at St. Mark's Church in New York City, 23 February 1977

Scholar Christopher Grobe crafts a series of individually satisfying case studies, then shows the strong threads between confessional poetry, performance art, and reality television, with stops along the way.

Tracing a thread from Robert Lowell to reality TV seems like an ominous task, and it is one that Christopher Grobe tackles by laying out several intertwining threads. The history of an idea, like confession, is only linear when we want to create a sensible structure, the "one damn thing after the next" that is the standing critique of creating historical accounts. The organization Grobe employs helps sensemaking.

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.