Solitary Man (Anchor Bay, R)

And that’s the key: everything Ben says comes off as calculated as a used car sales pitch, to the point where things that sound like utter bullshit end up being the gospel truth, and vice versa—even the audience never knows for sure. 




Ben Kalmen (Michael Douglas) used to be known as “New York’s Honest Car Dealer,” but that was in better times. The world eventually found out just how “honest” Ben really was: he bilked his customers and lost his dealership, he cheated on his high school sweetheart-turned-wife Nancy (Susan Sarandon), and he’s been left divorced, broke, and unemployable. To dig himself back out of his dire situation, he’s entered into a mutually beneficial relationship with Jordan (Mary-Louise Parker), whose father has influence on the board that could score Ben a new BMW dealership and put him back on top. As payment for services rendered, Jordan asks Ben to take her daughter Allyson (Imogen Poots) to her college interview in the hopes that his influence at his alma mater (back in richer times, he donated enough money to get his name on the college library) is still worth something. Once he’s out of Jordan’s immediate area, however, Ben is immediately on the prowl, befriending an awkward college student named Cheston (Jesse Eisenberg) to get access to cute girls and, if there’s time, maybe school him in the subtle art of getting in girls’ pants. It doesn’t take long before Ben’s philandering starts catching up with him, however, decimating both his chance at rebuilding his life and his long-neglected relationship with his adult daughter Susan (Jenna Fischer).

If that sounds like a lot of plot, it’s not really, but rather a laundry list of things Ben has or will screw up. While Solitary Man’s story has forward momentum, it’s less concerned with moving from A to B than it is with exploring what would happen if you only live for the moment and all of those moments gradually come back to haunt you. Since the film is so dependent on interpersonal relationships and emotional reactions to Ben’s often despicable actions, the film’s success depends largely on the actors’ ability to inhabit their roles such that you forget that they’re even acting and lose yourself in the tragicomedy playing out on screen.

In that respect, the film succeeds wildly. Douglas’ Ben is pitch perfect. Personality-wise, Ben isn’t much of a stretch from many other roles he’s played in his career, but Douglas revels in flipping the standard scenario and playing a Gordon Gekko-type at rock bottom. The most stunning part of Douglas’ performance is how well he captures just how pathological Ben’s dishonesty has become. As Ben tells Cheston at one point, “I say a whole bunch of stuff. Some of it’s even the truth.” And that’s the key: everything Ben says comes off as calculated as a used car sales pitch, to the point where things that sound like utter bullshit end up being the gospel truth, and vice versa—even the audience never knows for sure. Writer/director Brian Koppelman and his co-director/frequent collaborator David Levien (Rounders, Ocean’s Thirteen) use this to skillfully play with the audience’s expectations in that regard, pulling out laughs (and, at one point, loud groans of “Oh no!”) from the unexpected twists.

Douglas is buoyed by uniformly excellent performances by the rest of the cast. As the plot circles around Ben, most of the actors only get mere moments to shine but they work wonders: Susan Sarandon, with just a look, can communicate how she loves Ben but really just wishes he’d get his shit together, Fischer subtly transitions from disappointment to frustration to anger with each of Ben’s transgressions, and Eisenberg certainly has no problems nailing his role as Cheston, who is basically an older version of the character he played in 2001’s Roger Dodger. The most delightful performance comes from Danny DeVito, who instantly captures the casual ease of a friendship put on hold for 30 years as Jimmy, Ben’s old college pal and owner of the campus greasy spoon. The only performance that doesn’t quite connect is Parker’s, mostly because Jordan’s role is so brief that she doesn’t get enough screen time to really grab hold.

Solitary Man offers few missteps. The film is bookended by moments where the film gets a little too obvious: the opening credits offer a way too literal use of Johnny Cash’s cover of the Neil Diamond classic that the film borrows its title from, while the ending seems a bit too pat for a film that otherwise offers plenty of pointed commentary but no easy answers. Add to that a career-capping performance by Douglas and you’ve got one must-see drama on your hands. | Jason Green


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