There are few actors as versatile as Michael Douglas. He can be scary, he can be timid and he can even be funny, as evidenced by his excellent turn in the otherwise awful Ghosts of Girlfriends Past. He can also be dramatic and deep, however, and his new movie, Solitary Man, shows him at his best. A character study of the highest caliber, this is a movie that deserves to be seen and has proven itself as one of the year’s best.
Douglas plays Ben Kalmen, a former captain of the car industry. In his heyday, he was known as the “honest” car dealer and couldn’t keep cars in his lot if he tried. His name was widely known, but now years later, that name is tarnished. People still know it, but they think of it in a more negative manner due to some illegitimate business decisions that threatened him with jail time and stripped him of his money, pride and family. He spends most nights now on the prowl at the local bars looking for younger girls willing to have some fun despite being in a relationship with Jordan, played by Mary-Louise Parker.
After coming down with the flu, Jordan asks Ben to take her daughter Allyson, played by Imogen Poots, to his old alma mater and show her the ropes. He’s just getting back on his feet business-wise and is close to getting the approval to open up a new dealership, but after making a huge mistake on campus, he loses the opportunity and his already decaying world starts to fall apart even faster. His daughter Susan, played by Jenna Fischer, is getting tired of his inconsistent inclusion in her child’s life and his ex-wife, played by Susan Sarandon, is one of his only means of comfort, though she takes potshots at him as well given his destructive tendencies.
I try to keep my plot synopses relatively short in my reviews, but it’s important to know all of this to understand the character and why this movie is as good as it is, though even then you’ll have to see it to fully appreciate his complexities. He’s not a simple character to decipher. The feelings he holds on the inside don’t match the thick skin on the outside. His pain and his fear are hidden underneath his debauchery and nonchalant attitude.
All of this derives from the opening scene where he is told by a doctor that his EKG looks worrisome due to an irregularity with his heart, but instead of finding out the problem, he leaves and never looks back. He’d rather not live with the knowledge of his impending death and won’t accept that he has grown old in a world that seems increasingly younger. As he says, instead of walking in a room and being the center of attention, the only people who notice him now are the old ones. He has a problem with that and to compensate, he parties like he’s in college and acts like a kid, which distances him from his family.
When he goes out with his daughter and grandson, he orders them not to call him “dad” or “granddad” because he wants to carry the illusion of youthfulness. Instead of showing up for his grandson’s birthday party, he spends a night with a woman and sleeps through it. It isn’t until Susan threatens to take away his right to see his grandson that he begins to wise up.
Of course, a myriad of other factors contribute to his enlightenment as well. He has no income and has been kicked out of his home, forcing him to work as a waiter in a small restaurant owned by an old friend he hasn’t seen in 30 years, and after winding up in a hospital from a cracked rib he realizes he can’t cheat death and that his womanizing and partying has only been a temporary solution to his troubles.
This is where the brilliance of the movie lies. You do get the sense that Ben is starting to see things straight, realizing that the rest of his time on Earth is better spent with his family than with random women he picks up at night, but at the same time that habit is hard for him to break. Ending on a note that offers no definitive conclusion, Solitary Man is a fascinating character study in its own right and shows that just because you’re around people, it doesn’t mean you’re not alone.
Solitary Man receives 4.5/5