Judge Chris Claro has never met a car salesman who looks like Michael Douglas.
Our review of Solitary Man (Blu-Ray), published October 21st, 2010, is also available.
"I'll be what I am. A solitary man."
With Michael Douglas's recent revelation of being stricken with stage 4 throat cancer, Solitary Man stumbles into more poignancy than it may have originally possessed. The story of Ben Kalmen, a self-made, self-destructive car dealer, Solitary Man depicts the life of a man who, at 60, is shooting for the same fleeting, ephemeral thrills as men one third his age. From his illegal business dealings to his affair with his girlfriend's high-school-age daughter, Ben is a man for whom bad choices equal good times.
Facts of the Case
Ben Kalmen is a man behaving badly. Very, very badly. Coasting on charisma, Ben willfully—almost pathologically—violates the trust of everyone in his life: his grandson, his lover, even his eminently forgiving ex-wife (Susan Sarandon, The Lovely Bones). Attempting to return to selling high-end cars, Kalmen spirals into a booze-fueled torpor that costs him virtually everything, except his seemingly bottomless store of narcissism and self-regard.
In Solitary Man Michael Douglas paints with the same palette he used for his tweaked characters in Falling Down, Wonder Boys, and King of California. Though Ben Kalmen starts as a top-of-the-world type—think Gordon Gekko's Hyundai-hawking cousin—a health scare and a lifetime of looking out for number one conspire to force Kalmen to reexamine what's left of his life and decide whether he wants to spend it soddenly chasing down college girls.
Though the character of Kalmen doesn't reach the iconic status of a Gekko or achieve the loosey-goosey funk of Grady Tripp in Wonder Boys, Douglas imbues the horny car salesman with a melancholy that turns what could be a despicable character into something deeper. Sure, Ben's bedding the daughter of his girlfriend (Mary Louise Parker, Weeds) is rancid, but it's a credit to Douglas's performance and the script by Brian Koppelman (Rounders) that the character maintains a measure of humanity and vulnerability. With the specter of mortality hanging over Ben from the first frame, he grasps for anything that will make him feel vibrant, even if it means banning the word "grandpa" from public use with his family, so as not to alienate the hot young things checking him out in the park.
Ben has a lack of discretion and foresight that makes him hard to root for, but impossible to dismiss. He also has a lack of money—one cringeworthy scene shows the on-the-skids Ben cadging rent from his increasingly impatient daughter played in a one-note performance by Jenna Fischer (Walk Hard). Douglas looks a mite too hale and prosperous for someone in Ben's dire straits—it may be a character part, but Douglas is first and foremost a star and needs to maintain the burnish on his brand—but in his penetrating, desirous eyes, Douglas shows the shame and fear plaguing Ben.
Aside from Fischer and her lethargic performance, the actors surrounding Douglas are effective and welcome. Parker puts her deadpan affect to wicked use as she does everything she can to make Ben's life miserable. Sarandon's Nancy has moved past her ex's painful behavior and made a life for herself even as she clearly maintains affection for the emotionally stunted Ben. As an old friend who represents the stolid, mature male that Ben refuses to become, Danny Devito makes the most of his scenes with his old friend Douglas, with their off-screen relationship deepening the one in the film. Jesse Eisenberg (The Hunting Party), an actor I usually find far too mannered—enough with the ironic timidity already!—delivers a measured performance as a college student whom Ben educates in multiple ways.
Anchor Bay's presentation of Solitary Man is workmanlike and unexceptional. The transfer is fine, with the bleak east coast winter scenery paralleling Ben's late-in-life crisis. The Dolby Digital 5.1 is sufficient as well, though the mix of music and dialogue in the film doesn't get a chance to show it off. The included featurette is standard EPK filler, with the actors and filmmakers praising each other and not saying much about the film. And the commentary track, featuring directors Levien and Koppelman along with actor Douglas McGrath, for some reason, offers a few worthy insights about the production.
A small film about a big screw-up, Solitary Man is another reminder of Michael Douglas's dramatic range. Here's hoping he beats his health challenges and sticks around to create more characters like Ben Kalmen.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Anchor Bay
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