Review: Solitary Man

Michael Douglas delivers an excellent performance in Brian Koppelman and David Levien’s unsympathetic drama about a once successful car dealer’s fall from grace.

Directed by: Brian Koppelman, David Levien
Written by: Brian Koppelman
Starring: Michael Douglas, Jenna Fischer, Jesse Eisenberg, Mary-Louise Parker, Imogen Poots, Susan Sarandon, Danny DeVito
Released: 2009 / Genre: Drama / Country: USA / IMDB
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The writer-director team of Brian Koppelman and David Levien bring us a meditative yet unsentimental window on the midlife crisis of ex-car dealer and once very successful businessman Ben Kalmen (Michael Douglas). The unfortunate problem for Ben is that he is unwilling to accept the crisis exists. His raging sexual appetite, and ability to attract younger women way into old age, continues to misinform him that he can dodge the natural aging process. When his doctor tells him there are worrying signs his health is deteriorating, his reaction is to ignore the problem and sleep with the teenage daughter of his current girlfriend.

On his way to going broke, Ben hopes to open a new car dealership with the help of girlfriend Jordan (Mary Louise Parker). But after accompanying Jordan’s daughter Allyson (Imogen Poots) to a college interview, he ends up in bed with her. Although Allyson says she will keep their affair secret her ongoing feud with her mother ends in an argument that reveals the sexual indiscretion. Unsurprisingly, Ben’s car dealership plan falls through and he finds himself waiting tables at an old friend’s café. The saying “when it rains it pours” is apt for Ben who loses contact with his daughter Susan over his elusiveness and the fact he slept with the mother of one of her son’s friends.

solitary man, douglas, susan sarandon

I’d liken Solitary Man to another Michael Douglas film, Curtis Hanson’s Wonder Boys. In Wonder Boys the actor plays an author and teacher facing a similar midlife crisis and sexual appetite for younger women. But unlike Wonder Boys, Solitary Man is a much more downbeat affair – there’s little light at the end of the tunnel for Ben as the walls close in with seemingly unstoppable speed. Ben is also about as likeable as a debilitating disease. He’s a nasty wretch with little care for anyone other than himself. It’s a trait that makes the film difficult to watch at times because you have no sympathy for this man, while his troubles seem wholly self-inflicted.

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But the lack of sentiment also makes the film stand out. There’s a truth to Ben’s story that doesn’t succumb to the temptations of pandering to mainstream desires. There isn’t an MTV quick-fix here. Ben truly is a nasty piece of work and Koppelman and Levien present him as such. But his redemption, if it ever does come, will be more worthy because he’ll have to work for it.

Michael Douglas is excellent, delivering one of his finest performances. I particularly liked the re-teaming of Douglas with old friend Danny DeVito (the pair having starred in several films together including Romancing the Stone and The War of the Roses). It is especially poignant given the weathered look and slightly more reserved on-screen relationship the two have here. There’s an element of past adventures pulling them together (the warm embrace of nostalgia), while an uncertain future tugs them apart.

solitary man, michael douglas, danny devito,

But while Solitary Man may be unsympathetic at its core it wants to believe we make our own lot in life. Ben makes a number of bad decisions – many we see, some we don’t – and yet his troubles are all brought about by his own self-conscious fight against the world he still feels above. At one time he may well have been at the top of the social and business tree but now he is starting again from the bottom. His blatant disregard for the loved ones, friends and acquaintances in his life is brought about because it is something he can control. But while we can’t sympathise with the man because of his actions, we understand where his fear comes from. Ultimately, it isn’t going broke or facing the ignominy of having to borrow money from his daughter or losing his girlfriend over an affair with a teenager, it is the things he can’t control that scare him. When the doctor reveals his heart has shown abnormalities it brings the natural aging process into sharp focus. That is something we can all associate with.

Review by Daniel StephensSee all reviews

About the Author
Editor of Top 10 Films, Dan Stephens is usually found pondering his next list. An unhealthy love of 1980s Hollywood sees most of his top 10s involving a time-travelling DeLorean and an adventurous archaeologist going by the name Indiana.

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  1. Rodney Reply

    I don’t know about you Dan, but I find it difficult to enjoy a film if the central character is a bit of an ass. Perhaps “enjoy” isn’t the word, perhaps I mean “appreciate”. I don’t think this film is going to be high on my priority list of ones to watch, mind you, but I’m glad to see Michael Douglas stretching his range a bit in his later years.

    Great review, as usual!

  2. Dan Reply

    @Rodney: …it’s worth seeing for Douglas’ performance and a stellar cast but it is difficult to like because you can find little sympathy for Douglas’ character. But it is one of those films you can appreciate for what it is trying to say – and I think it says it quite well.

  3. ruth Reply

    I like Douglas so I might rent this at some point. Thanks Dan.

  4. Dhiraj Reply

    Solitary Man, presents an unforgivable rogue a man devoid of almost any moral qualms but somehow manages to make us identify with him. A loser we want to dot on, a deviant with deeply human core. Addressing the complexity of these roles is the alchemy of Michael Douglas.

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