Solitary Man

Movie review: In 'Solitary Man,' Michael Douglas plays an unappealing charmer

Michael Douglas, left, and Jesse Eisenberg as a pair of unlikely friends in
Michael Douglas, left, and Jesse Eisenberg as a pair of unlikely friends in "Solitary Man." (Phil Caruso/copyright 2009 Solitary Man Productions Inc.)
By Michael O'Sullivan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, June 11, 2010

It's no wonder Ben Kalmen is alone. He's a jerk.

By the end of "Solitary Man," the main character, played by Michael Douglas, has isolated himself, one by one, from nearly everyone and everything that once meant something to him. His girlfriend (Mary-Louise Parker) dumps him for sleeping with her teenage daughter (Imogen Poots). His own daughter Susan (Jenna Fischer) cuts him off, refusing to let him see his grandson Scotty (Jake Siciliano) after Ben beds the mother of one of Scotty's classmates. On the job front, the once-successful car dealer is reduced to slinging hash in a diner belonging to his childhood pal Jimmy (Danny DeVito), after a fraud conviction destroys his string of BMW dealerships, making him a pariah in the industry.

Besides Jimmy, Ben's ex-wife (Susan Sarandon) is practically the only person still talking to him -- though heaven knows why, after the indignities she has been subjected to. But Ben wasn't always this way. He was once crazy about his wife, and his business slogan used to be "New York's honest car dealer."

It's a tribute to Douglas's acting ability that he makes such an unappealing character believable, if less than likable. Ben is a charmer, and what made him a good -- if ultimately dishonest -- salesman makes him not just the ladies' man he is, but a character you can't take your eyes off.

Across the board, the acting is strong. Despite its name, "Solitary Man" isn't a film about Ben, but about relationships, and the impeccable cast fleshes them out wonderfully, under the co-direction of Brian Koppelman and David Levien, working from a script by Koppelman. You'll want to see more of even the most minor relationships.

A particularly rich and rewarding one is the friendship between Ben and Cheston (Jesse Eisenberg), a college kid Ben befriends, who in some way reminds Ben of the decent guy he apparently once was. It's a sweetly off-kilter twosome: this earnest undergraduate nerd hanging out with a man old enough to be his grandfather. At first, Ben gives Cheston romantic advice. But when that advice bears fruit, Ben, in another stunning act of betrayal, puts the moves on Daniel's girlfriend (Olivia Thirlby).

So what exactly happened to change him?

The whole movie hinges on the answer to that question, and it's the film's weak link. It's a doozy of a letdown, too, threatening to derail Douglas's otherwise satisfying -- and authentic -- performance, by basing it on a premise that rings false.

In the end, there's lots to like about "Solitary Man," Ben's horrid behavior notwithstanding. The movie is that rare beast: a drama for grown-ups, with moments of wry comedy, unexpected tenderness and genuine, unsentimentalized pain. When Cheston's girlfriend rebuffs Ben, telling him that she likes Cheston because he's "tender, sweet, smart and funny," Ben's answer is almost unbearably sad. "I was once, too, honey," he says. "It doesn't last."

The good man gone bad is the stuff of tragedy. But where Ben's fall from grace doesn't live up to the classics, or even real life, is in the explanation Koppelman and Levien offer for their hero's transformation -- his tragic flaw, as it were. If it's the prospect of growing old -- or, God forbid, dying -- that has destroyed Ben, then who among us isn't a monster in the making?

** 1/2 R. At Landmark's Bethesda Row Cinema. Contains crude language, sexual content and a beating. 90 minutes.

© 2010 The Washington Post Company