September 2, 2010
Even though it wasn’t a commercial success, Wonder Boys (2000) was Michael Douglas’ best performance since Wall Street (1987). He has tried to recapture the spark of that film by seeking out other quirky yet flawed characters, like with the King of California (2007), but they all lack that special something that made Wonder Boys so memorable. Well, he’s at it again with Solitary Man (2009) playing the disgraced patriarch of an affluent family and who is need of redemption. Sound familiar? The premise is rather similar to that of Wes Anderson’s The Royal Tenenbaums (2001) albeit with a few deviations and a much darker tone.
Six-and-a-half years ago, successful businessman Ben Kalmen (Douglas) had it all: a thriving car dealership and a wonderful family. Now, he’s divorced and chasing after women his daughter’s (Fischer) age while trying to regain the stature he enjoyed years ago before a major meltdown sullied his reputation. He still doesn’t have much time for his children or ex-wife (Sarandon) but is willing to take his latest girlfriend, Jordan (Parker) and her daughter Allyson (Poots) to his old alma mater for a college interview, using his pull in exchange for her father’s connections to get a new car dealership.
However, when Jordan gets too sick to go, Ben and Allyson travel together. She has no illusions about what kind of man he is and right off the bat they clear the air. While she goes to her interview, Ben is given a tour of the campus by student Daniel Cheston (Eisenberg), but instead they go back to his dorm room where Ben proceeds to school the shy young man on how to pick up women. Ben also takes a trip down memory lane and reconnects with an old classmate (DeVito) who runs a local deli. Ben and Allyson bond a little too well (they spend the night together) and this blows his business deal. This incident is indicative of his life in a nutshell: Ben spends too much time screwing anything in a skirt and not enough time on his business and his family. His life is in shambles and he desperately needs to make some drastic changes.
Michael Douglas plays an even more flawed and screwed up character then he did in Wonder Boys. In fact, if it weren’t for his engaging charisma, Ben Kalmen would be a pretty hard character to watch. As the film progresses, you keep wondering when he’s going to redeem himself. It is impressive to see Douglas playing such an unapologetically screwed up person. It is also nice to see him reunited with Danny DeVito with whom he has shared screen-time with on numerous occasions. The history together certainly makes their characters’ friendship that much more believable.
Directors Ben Koppelman and David Levien expertly handle Solitary Man’s tonal shifts as it goes from quirky comedy to uncomfortable drama – sometimes in the same scene. You have to admire their refusal to sentimentalize Ben and not go the easy, safe route by portraying him as a lovable rogue. He has to earn our respect and admiration much like he has to with his family. Ultimately, the film asks the eternal question, can you teach an old dog new tricks and does it want to learn? Solitary Man doesn’t offer any easy answers as it presents an unflinching portrait of an unrepentant womanizer.
There is an audio commentary by writer/director Brian Koppelman, director David Levien and actor Douglas McGrath. They talk about working with the constraints of a modestly budgeted film, like getting the rights to Johnny Cash’s cover of “Solitary Man.” Many of the New York scenes were shot in the Upper West Side in places where Koppelman and Levien frequent. All three men joke and banter like long-time friends while speaking at length about the challenges of making an independent film.
“Solitary Man: Alone in a Crowd” features several cast members talking about their characters and the story. The directors say that the role of Ben Kalmen was written with Michael Douglas in mind. There are plenty of clips from the film that give this featurette the feel of an extended trailer.
Finally, there is a theatrical trailer.