Friday, June 25, 2010

Douglas is terrific as self destructive 'SOLITARY MAN'

By Steve Crum
It is so easy, so right in fact, to be repelled by Michael Douglas’ central character, Ben Kalmen, in Solitary Man. Here is a guy who treats people, including his own daughter, like the most sleazy, stereotypical used car salesman imaginable (and lo, he is a car salesman). Thanks particularly to smart dialogue and an Oscar worthy performance by Douglas, Solitary Man is a charismatic 90 minutes of drama as we observe a man determined to self destruct.

Co-directors Brian Koppelman and David Levien, along with Koppelman’s screenplay, effectively tell the rather uncomfortable tale beginning with a flashback to over six years back, when Kalmen receives a diagnosis of a possibly serious heart problem. At that time, he is a highly successful car dealer with several mid-town locations. Long married to soulmate Nancy (Susan Sarandon), he has a loving married daughter, Susan (Jenna Fischer of TV’s The Office), son-in-law, and grandchild. Kalmen is also a local media personality, having appeared on TV ads (“New York’s Honest Car Dealer”) for his upscale car dealerships, and he is a philanthropist of sorts. The library at his alma mater university is named after him due to his generous donations. That was then.

Since his medical scare, which he never follows up with treatment, Kalmen is hell bent on living, really re-living, his life. He pursues and beds virtually every young lady he sees, prompts his wife to divorce him, and gets involved in illegalities leading to the destruction of his auto dealerships. He serves jail time. He is a man figuratively off center, reeling and spiraling. Call it classic mid-life crisis or just trying to race death. Either way, 60 year-old Ben Kalmen’s life style has segued into smooth talking his way into board rooms and bedrooms. He is constantly broke, yet still appears to be on top of his game. He exudes confidence via a winning smile and sharp clothes, yet his demeanor is more plastic than ever. Michael Douglas played a similar, but more controlling weasel Gordon Gekko in Wall Street (1986).

Just when we are seduced into thinking Kalmen is back on track, he dupes us again. A telling sequence involves Kalmen going out of his way to escort his girlfriend Jordan’s daughter to interview with the dean of his old university and tour the campus. Jordan is played by Mary-Louise Parker, while Imogen Poots plays her daughter Allyson. Always looking for an angle, Kalmen befriends a sophomore, Daniel Cheston (Jesse Eisenberg), giving him tips on how to please women. Without divulging any more, just realize one thing leads to a more outrageous event, all triggered by Kalmen, which affect the remainder of the plot.

Look for Danny DeVito as an old college buddy Jimmy, now running his late dad’s off-campus malt shop, who factors into Kalmen’s return to his old campus life. No, Kalmen has not re-enrolled, he just partakes in every bar and frat party he can find. The non-partying, non-boozing Jimmy lends stability to Ben’s life, even letting him stay with him. Like Kalmen’s wife and daughter, Jimmy still cares enough to offer help.

Speaking of Ben’s daughter, there are a couple of dynamite scenes featuring Fischer’s Susan, whose love for him bottoms out as he repeatedly forsakes her and her son. There are terrific performances throughout Solitary Man, but Fischer and Douglas are particularly Oscar illuminated.

It is ironic that Grown Ups is also opening today. Whereas Grown Ups humorously explores a group of adult men pursuing their shared pasts in raucous, slapstick ways, Solitary Man travels the dark side. Ben Kalmen’s pursuit is self destructive, yet with a grim, pitiful humor that makes for one compelling movie.
GRADE on an A to F Scale: B+
Please watch the trailer to Solitary Man:

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