This independent film starts with a bad rendition of Neil Diamond’s hit song by the same name, but the movie soars. It is not a light, breezy film in any way but it a fine character study that returns Michael Douglas to the top of his game. Enjoy it if you can find it. It is playing the Varsity Theater and Jordan Creek Mall Century Theater in Des Moines and art houses everywhere.
Solitary Man (Michael Douglas, Jenna Fischer, Danny DeVito, Susan Sarandon, Imogen Poots, Mary-Louise Parker, Jesse Eisenberg) – At 65 years old, Michael Douglas can still command the movie screen. In recent years, he choice of parts has looked somewhat desperate to me. Films like Ghosts of Girlfriends Past, The In-Laws, and You, Me and Dupree are unworthy of his talent. Soon-to-be-released Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps, the sequel to the outstanding Wall Street, brings an aging Gordon Gekko back, and I can’t wait. Solitary Man got no publicity and is playing largely art houses around the country. And it is quite a film. It is very much Douglas at his aging best.
Featuring an all-star ensemble cast, Solitary Man centers on Ben Kalmen (Douglas), a former rich, highly-successful “honest” New York car dealer who pulled off a Bernie Madoff-level scam, got caught, prosecuted, and lost all of his money and most of his respect in the ensuing years-long legal battle. He did avoid jail, however. The movie opens before the scandal and 6 ½ years before the current day, with the always-cocky Ben (think Tom Sanders in Disclosure) going in for his annual physical. His long-time doctor “doesn’t like his EKG” and orders major diagnostic tests for him. Flash forward to now.
Ben is divorced from his wife, Nancy (Susan Sarandon in a luscious cameo); living with a rich younger woman, Jordan (Mary-Louise Parker) and her daughter, Allyson, (the very talented Imogen Poots); trying to get a new car dealership approved by the local city council; and chasing women successfully all over the Boroughs. This 60+-year-old has all the moves, and they still work on younger women. He hops from bed to bed while milking his live-in and trying to re-capture the success he exudes from every pore but without the money or the friends he once had. Ben is living a nightmare. He is trying to bury the images with meaningless sex and a carefree, live-for-the-moment attitude that is vaguely reminiscent of his roles in films like Wall Street, A Perfect Murder and Wonder Boys.
When Jordan gets ill, she commands Ben to take Allyson to her college interview at Ben’s alma mater, where he has been a major donor with his name on the library and everything. Here, the film hits its stride. Ben doesn’t want to be there but the memories flood back, including those of his first meeting with Nancy. He leaves Allyson to do what she wants while he befriends a young college student (played by Adventureland’s Jesse Eisenberg), becoming a mentor in the process. He also gets reacquainted with his college buddy, Jimmy Merino, an underachieving good guy who never left the college town and who owns a small café near campus. The very best moments involve Ben and Allyson; don’t miss them.
Let’s just say the story evolves from here with Ben’s life spiraling downhill, all of his own doing. Nothing has been the same since the day his doctor told him he might have a serious heart problem. Everything came up smelling like roses until then and it’s been all smelly fertilizer since. Even his only good relationship – with his married daughter, Susan, who loves her dad, listens to his problems and helps where she can – begins to decay. Played by The Office’s Jenna Fischer in a performance that was a revelation, Susan doesn’t hold any grudge about the divorce or dad’s highly publicized fall. But he even does her wrong.
There are several questions the audience wants answered. Can Ben be redeemed? When he hits rock bottom, will anyone be there? Will his heart give way before that? Will he commit suicide, die of natural causes, or be saved? Co-writers Brian Koppelman and David Levien direct their first major movie after having penned films like Rounders, Runaway Jury, and Ocean’s Thirteen (all favorites of mine), and they do so with aplomb. This is an exceptional, if depressing, independent film that shows that Douglas can still act, entice, entertain, and engage.