Michael Douglas plays a flaming schmuck in Solitary Man, a serious test of endurance for a movie-goer looking for a character study.
Some six and a half years ago, Ben Kalmen (Douglas), who even in these prologue scenes seems like a hard-core blowhard, is having his annual physical when his doctor tells him that he's not loving some of his test results. The doctor orders Ben to have more tests done to look at his heart. We don't get too many scenes into the present day before we can guess that Ben took this news badly. He dumped longtime wife Nancy (Susan Sarandon) and regularly cheats on new girlfriend Jordan (Mary-Louise Parker), a woman he may be dating solely because her father can help him get permission to open a BMW dealership. Seems that sometime in the last six years, the formerly successful Ben was nailed for some financial chicanery at the car dealerships he used to own. Because of his former wealth and position as a big-fish donor, he still has a bit of pull at his old college and so agrees to take Jordan's daughter Allyson (Imogen Poots) for her interview and a tour. While there, he chases girls and tries to school the nerdy sophomore Daniel Cheston (Jesse Eisenberg) in the art of being a lothario.
Very expected things happen and soon Ben is on the outs with Jordan, in financial trouble and eventually even turned away by his put-upon daughter Susan (Jenna Fischer).
One of Ben's more serious character flaws is his constant and aggressive playing of the field. He can't stop himself from hitting on women anywhere he goes — whether it's a dorm hallway, a friends' party where he hits on the host's girlfriend or a dinner where he's receiving unpleasant financial news. And, OK, he's an old sleaze — picking up the ladies (you know he's the kind of guy who calls them "ladies") is his shtick. But he's also 65 and looks it. And he is so clearly the kind of guy who is hard-packed full of his own BS — he doesn't have conversations, he monologues at you with pauses for your applause. Utterly devoid of charm, an obvious guy on the make even if you don't know for what — I can't imagine a scenario in which the number of young women he's supposed to get would fall for him. Or rather, that scenerio would have to include money or influence of some kind — two things Ben doesn't have. As a formerly wealthy guy who now has to borrow money from his daughter and ex-wife, Ben is not any kind of a catch. Ben's libido is a central fact of his life, what motivates him and what drives the plot, and I don't for one second believe that it gets him anywhere but shot down (which it does in the movie, but not nearly as often as it would in real life).
Now, even in a movie like this, a movie where most of the action and all of the scenes center on one person, you don't need to like the character to enjoy the movie. Villains — think Christoph Waltz in Inglourious Basterds — can be great fun. Some times, in some circumstances, we can even identify with them more than the alleged hero — think Meryl Streep in The Devil Wears Prada. And misanthropes we wouldn't want to be married to or to work with can still be fun characters to follow — think Hugh Laurie in House (not a movie, but still). Last week, I spent an hour wanting nothing to do with two of the three female leads in Mother and Child. But in the movie's final 30 or 40 minutes, they got layered and complicated, if not nicer. I didn't love those people but I wanted to see how their stories would turn out.
Ben is one-note throughout. He begins and ends as the exact same character, even if his actions become more pathetic and depraved, and all attempts to peel back one layer of scumminess to show us something else are so effort-full, so see-the-math that they fall apart under the weight off all the "look what we're saying about this character here." The ending is a particularly showy, off-putting example of how smart the movie thinks its been.
Because the movie is so thoroughly Ben-centric, we get only hints at other people. Sarandon and Fischer are reduced to "happy" or "frustrated." The women Ben runs through might as well be blow-up dolls for all the personality they get to have. Only Danny DeVito, who plays an old friend of Ben's now owning and working in a diner near the old college campus, gets to have a bit more meat to him.
As can happen when all the elements don't click in a story like this, Solitary Man feels like it goes on forever even if nothing much is happening. Save yourself the ticket price and spend your money instead on the Johnny Cash cover of the song "Solitary Man" that plays over the opening credits. The man described in that few-minute song gets more depth than Ben does in the whole movie. C-
Rated R for language and some sexual content. Directed by Brian Koppelman and David Levien and written by Koppelman, Solitary Man is an hour and 30 minutes long and distributed in limited release by Anchor Bay Films.