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Solitary Man Should Be Left Alone

May 27, 2010
Solitary Man

In Solitary Man, Michael Douglas uses sex to stave off mortality. Not a bad idea, in theory.

In a moment of post-coital clarity after a one-night stand, a lovely young blonde woman (Anastasia Griffithe) asks Ben Kalmen (Michael Douglas), “How did I even end up with the grandfather of one of my son’s friends?” With typically cruel bluntness, Kalmen responds, “You’re in your late 30s. And if you were in your late 20s, you would be with the dissatisfied father of one of your son’s friends.” Pulling the bed sheets to her chin, she asks, “Who even talks like that?” Good question. The same could be asked about any character in Solitary Man, one of those contrived exercises in middle-brow profundity where every character articulately says what he’s thinking or feeling all the time, without the slightest bit of shame or misdirection. Its apparent cynicism is as fraudulent and predictable as its final reel turn to humanism.

Directed by Brian Koppelman and Daniel Levein (co-writers of Rounders) from an inexplicably celebrated script by Koppelman, Solitary Man focuses on Douglas’ Kalmen, one of those raging, aging lions familiar from overrated Saul Bellow novels. He’s 60, he has a bad heart, and he’s taken a dump on everything good in his life. Sometime in the past seven years, he divorced his faithful wife (Susan Sarandon) and sabotaged his successful car-dealership empire so as to dedicate his life to the pursuit of the youngest possible tail he can snare. Despite being a world-beating douchebag, he retains the unconditional love of his angelic daughter (Jenna Fischer, who has yet to prove she can do anything interesting beyond her role as Pam on The Office) and his eternally patient ex. He still lives in luxury in an impossibly expensive Manhattan apartment (which is to say, it has a view and there’s room to walk around his bed), and still catches the eye of winsome, exotic 20-somethings. In other words, he lives the kind of heterosexual fantasy of late middle age reserved in reality only for celebrated authors and, well, Michael Douglas.

If Koppelman were to cast a non-judgmental eye to his subject, then we might have had something interesting: a psychological case study of a man who uses sex to smother his fear of dying. But Koppelman is too “responsible” for that. As with any good (which is to say, bad) morality tale, the antihero needs to get his come-uppins. Koppelman provides them in spades, from dumping by his new girlfriend (Mary Louise Parker) to another business failure to sexual rejection to a beating at the hands of a mob-hired tough guy. The profound lesson? What goes around comes around, or perhaps, one shouldn’t be an asshole.

The opportunity for his predictable undoing comes in a trip to his alma mater, a generic Ivy-esque university outside of Boston that he gave heavily to during his salad days. He goes there at Parker’s urging, so as to help her spoiled, prematurely mature daughter (Imogeen Poots) with her chances of admission. But the dean, wary of Kalmen’s sketchy recent business record, sends the head of the student senate (Jesse Eisenberg) to take Kalmen on a tour of the library that bears his name. Kalmen, who ain’t got time for no book learning, instead shows the shy sophomore how to pick up girls, drinking beers with him at a college party more generic than the campus and offering old-man asshole lessons on women more generic than the party. Poots has about 50% of Scarlett Johansson’s blank-slate sex appeal—which is more than enough—and Eisenberg plays a typically Eisenberg-ian slouching nerd (a first cousin of Michael Cera’s stammering dork). We should be thankful, I guess, that Koppelman doesn’t pair these two off, but the first-act visit to the college is the last time Koppelman’s screenplay does anything remotely unpredictable.

I’m sure Douglas saw the script as one of those opportunities for an Oscar-baiting late-career reflection on mortality, but he’s been playing this kind of overconfident jerk who gets what he deserves for more than 20 years. As Scout Fountas wryly observes, Douglas’s movies resemble stations of the cross on the way to privileged white-male martyrdom. Still, it’s always a pleasure to hear him deliver unvarnished truths about life and sex in his commanding deep voice. But there’s nothing new here, other than a few touchingly vulnerable shots of Douglas’s sagging breasts and flabby belly. That’s appropriate, for Kalmen is the only fleshed-out character in Solitary Man.

The other characters have no lives of their own, existing solely to act as foils for Kalmen’s increasingly irresponsible behavior. They come in three shades: saintly (his daughter, his ex, Eisenberg’s character, his college friend played by Danny DeVito, his grandson played by Jake Richard Siciliano), sinister (Poots) and functional (Ben Shenkman as his contact at a major car-maker, Richard Schiff as his personal banker). The only exception is Parker, which may be less a function of her character than of Parker’s trademark affectless delivery. The one other exception is David Costabile (The Wire), whose job as Fischer’s husband is to berate Kalmen for his obnoxiousness. Costabile is annoying, albeit correct.

Koppelman surrounds his antihero with a chorus of critics, but Koppelman’s just as indulgent of Kalmen as Kalmen is of himself. Whether he’s on the prowl or in the dumps, Kalmen acts as if the world revolves around him. When he sees DeVito in his old college town, for the first time in 30 years, DeVito says, “You always said you’d never come back, and you always said I’d never leave.” As if that’s all DeVito’s character’s been thinking about for three decades. Just once, I would have liked to hear a character talk about something other than Kalmen, if only to suggest they have identities independent of his ego.

Apparently satisfied that Kalmen has suffered enough after various humiliations and failures, Koppelman uses the final scene as an opportunity to humanize his self-destructive protagonist. The explanation is so obvious as to be unnecessary. But that’s not the most obnoxious part of the film’s ending. In the final shot, Kalmen faces the unlikely choice of returning to a life of responsibility or continuing his death-denying, skirt-chasing ways. Just as he’s about to make his choice, Devein and Koppelman cut to black. They’re trying to create an aura of artful indeterminacy, but the cut is really an act of ideological and narrative cowardice. They want us to think they care about these characters when all they really care about is generating some kind of critical “buzz.” Judging by the reviews, the ploy worked.

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One Comment leave one →
  1. bro permalink
    May 27, 2010 11:06 pm

    you know as well as I do that movies about white middle aged males undergoing a spiritual crisis are like catnip to the white middle aged male populace that makes up the majority of major film critics. They might as well of just called this American Beauty II

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