Michael Douglas is Ben Kalmen, a successful business and family man. He’s got a loving wife (Susan Sarandon), an adoring daughter (Jenna Fischer), and owns a hugely profitable car dealership franchise. He’s leading the ideal life. That is, until he pays a visit to his family physician for a routine check-up, and his doctor notices some irregularities and asks Ben to return for some follow-up tests.
Cut to 18 months later. Ben never returns for the follow-up. He’s divorced; he lost his car dealership because of a highly-publicized financial scandal; he’s on the brink of destitution, borrowing money from his daughter in the long-shot hopes of starting another car dealership, despite the fact that his name has been tainted by scandal. And he’s sleeping with a series of women less than half his age while he’s in a relationship with another woman (Mary Louise Parker) he doesn’t even like. He makes one irredeemable mistake after another, screwing over his closest friends, alienating his family, and sleeping — or trying to sleep — with the exact wrong people over and over again. His life is a disaster, and everything about Ben and the way he’s conducted himself since that doctor’s visit makes him completely despicable, and each time it looks as though he might redeem himself, even slightly, he does the exact wrong thing again.
And yet, there’s something in Michael Douglas’ depiction of this man that makes you inexplicably want to root for him. You wait for him to have that epiphany that you know is buried somewhere inside of him — a revelation about his own self destruction — but it never seems to arrive. He becomes a more contemptuous person after every frame. By the end of Solitary Man, you’re no longer sure what to think of him or if it was appropriate to ever sympathize with him at all.
Solitary Man is a quietly entertaining film. It’s intelligent, well paced, emotionally complex, and at times, sexually charged. But like Up in the Air, which also had a lighter, breezier tone, Solitary Man is so thematically heavy that it sneaks up and wallops you over the head as you’re leaving the theater. Thematically, it’s about the consequences of living in the moment, and about mortality, and how we face death when we know it’s lurking around the corner. Do we go quietly, snuggled up against our spouses in front of the television waiting for death to knock? Or do we cast our loved ones aside and seize all the moments we missed out on in our lives, regardless of the repercussions? We only die once. How do we go out? Guns blazing, no regrets? Or do we holster all those missed opportunities and peacefully embrace the end?
When I put together our list of the ten most anticipated anti-blockbuster movies of the summer, leaving off Solitary Man was an oversight. I thought it was scheduled for release in the midst of awards season, where Douglas’ opportunities for recognition would’ve been more available. It’s a deserving film, and Douglas delivers a deserving performance — his best since Wonder Boys. In addition, there are several stand-out supporting efforts from Danny Devito, Jesse Eisenberg, Jenna Fischer, Susan Sarandon, and especially, Imogen Poots, who delivers a remarkable performance as the daughter of Ben Kalman’s girlfriend. I would’ve likely put Solitary Man in the top five of that list based on the trailer alone, but having had seen the movie, it’s both so much better than the trailer portends and yet, nothing you expect it to be.
Written and directed by Brian Kopelman, who also wrote Rounders and Ocean’s 13, Solitary Man is frustrating and emotionally unsatisfying in all the right ways. It doesn’t offer an easy resolution, but it’s an honest, bittersweet and unflinching film about human weakness and the alpha-male battle between pride and mortality. Simply put: Solitary Man is outstanding.