Michael Douglas calls back to past roles as a self-destructive guy.
Leading with his dimpled chin and cocksure swagger, Michael Douglas still carries himself like Hollywood royalty, yet always carefully signals vast chasms of inadequacy lurking beneath the alpha-male posturing. It’s hard to think of another leading man who so gravitates toward human frailty, his characters constantly being undone by lust, greed or threatened-white-guy privilege. Douglas is a much braver—and much better—actor than he often gets credit for being.
Alas, we haven’t seen much of Michael Douglas onscreen over the past decade, save for bit parts in crap comedies like You, Me and Dupree or Ghosts of Girlfriends Past. Mainstream movies have shifted away from the adult-ish complexities and concerns that made even Douglas’ trashiest thrillers worth watching. His brand of abrasive, deeply flawed antiheroes are now found mostly on television. (I’m still amazed the guy doesn’t have his own series on Showtime or F/X.)
But there are always indies, and Solitary Man, directed by Brian Koppelman and David Levien from Koppelman’s screenplay, has been almost-too-neatly designed as The Ultimate Michael Douglas Experience. Pulling together echoes of the star’s most iconic roles, it’s a somewhat contrived, if ultimately irresistible, one-man show of arrogant entitlement and aching vulnerability. The movie wouldn’t make sense with anybody else in the part.
Douglas stars as Ben Kalmen, a once-prosperous New Jersey auto-dealership mogul who seems to have dedicated the past six years of his life to self-destructing in the tawdriest ways imaginable. Solitary Man skips the actual flameout in order to focus on the flickering embers afterwards. When we catch up with Ben, he’s lazily taking the long way around the end of his downward spiral, still living beyond his means and chasing much younger women, and gradually realizing that he’s finally run out of money and time.
His business destroyed by extralegal shenanigans, Ben’s now scraping for a second lunge at the brass ring via the influence of his brittle, moneyed Manhattan-ite girlfriend (Mary-Louise Parker). But, this being a Michael Douglas movie, he can’t resist torpedoing his future by putting his dick in the wrong place. A visit to a Boston university chaperoning Parker’s man-eating teenage daughter (Imogen Poots) goes exactly (and ickily) where you wished it wouldn’t, and Ben’s already tenuous existence quickly comes crashing down around him.
Ben Kalmen’s finger-jabbing, car-salesman strut is an amusingly down-market take on Wall Street ’s Gordon Gekko. (He’s a Master of the Universe, except in lowercase letters. And in New Jersey.) The boozy, college-town hijinks call to mind Douglas’ last great role, as addled Professor Grady Tripp in Curtis Hanson’s sublime Wonder Boys. And, of course, the horndog circumstances of Kalmen’s decline call to mind nearly every movie from the late ’80s through the mid-’90s in which various Douglas characters’ inability to keep it in their pants got them in trouble. Casting his frequent co-star Danny DeVito as Ben’s oldest friend almost makes Solitary Man feel like an episode of This Is Your Life, but the two still have such a relaxed, enjoyable rapport that it’s tough to complain.
Douglas throws himself into the character, daring the (lousy) cinematography to show his age and reveling in deplorable, often regrettably funny misbehavior. After shamelessly bumming money from his adult daughter (Jenna Fischer) while regaling her with tales of his sordid sex life, Ben seduces one of her friends, then casually insults the sad, divorced soccer mom until she flees his apartment. It’s the most painful post-coital pillow-talk since Cassavetes’ Husbands , and Douglas courageously carries it off without a thought in the world as to movie-star concerns about being liked by the audience. The desperation is so palpable, you probably won’t like him at all—but you’ll still feel his pain.
Koppelman and Levien’s mistake—and it’s almost a fatal one—is to supply a concrete explanation for Ben’s self-destructive streak. Solitary Man ’s final reel suffers from Psych 101 syndrome, wrapping a fascinating midlife crisis up with a tidy little bow. The final moments are pat, easy and neat—the exact opposite of Douglas’ jagged, fearless performance.