film review: SOLITARY MAN

Directed by David Levien & Brian Koppelman
Produced by Paul Schiff, Steven Soderbergh, Avi Lerner & Moshe Diamant
Written by Koppleman
Edited by Tricia Cooke
Cinematography by Alwin H, Kuchler
Cast:  Michael Douglas, Mary-Louise Parker, Jenna Fischer, Jesse Eisenberg, Imogen Poots, Susan Sarandon, David Costabile & Danny DeVito
Released by Anchor Bay Films
USA. 90 min. Rated R

[Article originally appeared: http://film-forward.com/solitary.html]

When Ben Kalmen slithers into a restaurant, nattily so in his black designer duds and Ray Bans, the first thing he does is scope the scene for young attractive women. To avoid embarrassment, he instructs his loved ones to refer to him as Captain Ben when in public, not Dad and definitely not Grandpa. Ben is a former King of New York. A once wealthy and successful owner of car dealerships, Ben had it all, including an adoring wife (Susan Sarandon) and a doting daughter (“The Office”’s Jenna Fischer). Then Ben learned he had a heart condition and threw it all away. He became involved in some illegal business dealings, lost his business, and did some time. Now, Ben is on the cusp of a comeback after years of being considered a pariah. His new girlfriend, Jordan (Mary-Louise Parker), pulls a few strings with her powerful daddy, head of the car dealership commission, and Ben has a true second chance. Accept for one problem, and that problem is named Ben.

Michael Douglas & Susan Sarandon in SOLITARY MAN; photo courtest of Anchor Bay Films

The crux of “Solitary Man”, a comedy directed by Brian Koppleman and David Levien, takes place on a trip Ben takes to his alma mater with Jordan’s daughter, Allyson (Imogen Poots). Ben wants to impress Jordan or Allyson or perhaps himself by helping insure Allyson’s chances of being accepted. Back in the day, he bestowed the university with an endowment and has a library named after him. While there, Ben befriends a geeky college kid named Daniel (Jesse Eisenberg) who, after a few minutes, follows Ben around like a puppy. It’s the peripheral relationships Ben has such as the one with Daniel that is the film’s weakest link. While Ben is obviously charismatic, it’s impossible to think that Daniel would so blindly look up to him as a mentor. Eisenberg played a similar role in both “The Education of Charlie Banks” and “Adventureland”; he needs to expand his range. Even more unlikely is Ben’s inappropriate affair and subsequent obsession with 17-year-old Allyson. Much more believably, he sleeps with a thirtysomething friend of his daughter’s, despite the damage his behavior causes.

Imogen Poots, Michael Douglas & Jesse Eisenberg in SOLITARY MAN; photo courtesty of Anchor Bay Films

Another friendly face that appears midstream is Danny DeVito’s Jimmy Merino, the owner of an off-campus diner Ben used to frequent as a student. The two became friends, but Merino felt abandoned after Ben’s star rose. Now in trouble these many years later, Ben comes back to try and rekindle the friendship. The scenes with Douglas and DeVito feel worn in and comfy, like they’re intended to. DeVito’s first breakout role was in the Douglas-produced “One Flew Over the Cuckoos Nest”, and the two went on to co-star in a number of successful comedies in the ’80s. To see them share the screen now is nostalgic, but it also feels like lazy casting. The low-key role doesn’t suit DeVito’s talent and feels phoned in. More appealing is Susan Sarandon as Ben’s ex, Nancy. What anger or resentment Nancy might have once felt towards Ben has long been quelled. She has clearly moved on, and the distance has given her the ability to see Ben for who he really is, a scared man-child grasping at the final straws of middle age.

“Solitary Man” aims to depict Ben as a self-destructive bad boy with a soft center. But as good as Michael Douglas is at playing a man/child, he’s excessively charming. Despite Ben’s obvious flaws, he remains entirely likable. I watched the final moments of the film with a smile but left wishing I was less impressed by how fit Michael Douglas looks at 64.

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