While not high on the list of feel-good movies of the summer, Solitary Man definitely should be high on the list of films you should see—if for no other reason than the performances. It’s rare to find this many resonating spot-on performances in a single movie. It’s rarer still to find them anchored to a central performance as powerful as that of Michael Douglas’ here. Some roles are called “career defining,” but here we have one that is actor defined. As much as Ben Kalmen is a terrific part for Douglas, it’s a part that needs him more than he needs it.
Solitary Man is only the second directorial effort from writing partners Brian Koppelman and David Levien—and the first one worth talking about. (In fact, the less said about their 2001 film Knockaround Guys, the better.) As a concept, Solitary Man is not particularly remarkable. After a brief prologue that suggests much, but actually reveals little about Ben Kalmen, the film jumps ahead six-plus years to Ben trying to pull his life back together. He has gone from being a wealthy car-dealership magnate and minor celebrity—thanks to his “New York’s honest car dealer” commercials—to a tarnished figure who nearly went to prison for fraud. (In his self-glorifying mind, he did go to prison, which we find out means he spent one night in jail.) At this point, he’s trying to wrangle a shot at rebuilding his empire—with the aid of his girlfriend Jordan’s (Mary-Louise Parker) influential father.
Ben’s apparent problem is that he is a player. He is always “on” and always looking to work an angle. He can’t resist being—at least in his mind—irresistible. He is out to seduce very nearly the entire world—if not literally, then figuratively. He never sees an attractive woman he doesn’t want to bed and he never sees a young man he doesn’t want to help shape. He is surrounded by people—ex-wife Nancy (Susan Sarandon), girlfriend Jordan, her daughter Allyson (Imogen Poots, Me and Orson Welles), his own daughter Susan (Jenna Fischer, TV’s The Office), her son Scotty (Jake Siciliano), son-in-law Gary (TV actor David Costable)—and most of them he tries to play one way or another. Most of them are on to him, but most of them indulge him. Unfortunately, Ben’s transgressions go too far when he can’t resist seducing the 18-year-old Allyson—a move that not only destroys his relationship with Jordan, but also throws all his plans into disarray.
From there, it’s a seemingly downward spiral for Ben, but it’s an interesting one that manages to avoid nearly every possible pitfall in such a scenario. The film’s shrewdest move in this area is that Ben doesn’t have some easy epiphany and try to mend his wayward ways. On the contrary, he keeps on much as he did—apparently oblivious to any real sense of wrongdoing. More, he never asks for sympathy from the people in his life, nor does he ask it from the viewer. The only sympathy he gets comes from his one remaining old friend, philosophical sandwich-shop owner Jimmy Merino (a remarkable performance from Danny DeVito), who may be the person in the film who best understands the nature of friendship.
Ben’s path isn’t defined by big dramatic moments. It’s crafted from small details and little moments that slowly eat through Ben’s well-established facade of being the one person who is allowed to be in control and at the center of everyone’s life—the very things that make him the solitary man of the title. There’s no blinding revelation here, and the closest the film comes to one is the story’s weakest point. There are hints scattered throughout that Ben isn’t as shallow and as empty as he seems, but little is stated outright—including in the film’s ending. This is one of those rare, beautifully judged moments where you may find yourself thinking, “All right, cut to black now, stop here”—and miraculously, it does. Rated R for language and some sexual content.