Tuesday, July 06, 2010

Solitary Man

This is the story of Ben Kalmen (Michael Douglas), a former car dealer - indeed, New York City’s “honest car dealer,” whatever the hell that means - whose life seems to be descending through Dante’s circles of hell on a lubed luge. He’s lost his dealership and his wife (played by Susan Sarandon), most of the respect he has built up over the years in the business and social communities in New York, and will in short order be losing his girlfriend and his apartment. Is it posible that he could even wind up serving milkshakes at the neighborhood deli in the town where he went to college?

Yes! It is possible! How? How, you say, could such a thing be possible for someone who had so much, who was so loved and respected and successful? He was on TV for crying out loud! People knew him because he was the car dealer whose commercials they saw on TV. (That’s how a lot of people relate to local attorney Ken Nunn, but whatever.) The answer to the question comes at the end of the film, and there’s a hint at the beginning; but mostly what we have is a series of scenes in which Ben Kalmen makes bad decision after bad decision, along the way using his salesman’s pitch almost as though he wants to justify being an unemployed salesman.

Technically, this is not bad. Douglas plays it well, almost making you believe that a dude who’s pushing seventy can still seduce the barely-legal set. With a couple of exceptions, the rest of the cast exists only with respect to Ben’s character. Susan Sarandon, Mary-Louise Parker, and Danny DeVito are mostly wasted as Ben’s ex-wife, current girlfriend, and friend from college whom he hasn’t seen in thirty years. His wife and friend are more sympathetic to him than the girlfriend, which serves to support one of the film’s overall themes, that the comfort and love you build up over time in a relationship with a person (whether lover or only friend, and regardless of gender) is far more important, far more durable, than retaining in perpetuity the ability always to hit it with the hottest girl in any room.

This is the lesson that Ben needs to learn, the knowledge that can help him start to build a baseline of stability in his life. Most of the film is concerned with prodding him gently in this direction, with help along the way from a surprisingly patient array of people who always manage to be there to pick him up when he stumbles. Two of the less wasted characters are his daughter (Jenna Fischer) and a college kid he manages awkwardly to befriend (Jesse Eisenberg). They share more scenes with Ben than the other characters, and see a broader range of the Ben Kalmen experience - which means that they are both charmed and taken advantage of by him. That they remain supportive through to the end says something both about which is the real Ben Kalmen and about how well Michael Douglas has been able to sell what should be a thoroughly unlikable character.

The glaring problem is that there is no real causal relationship between the downward spiral and what got him going on it in the first place - at least, not until the end. Once that explanation comes, it is surprisingly satisfying (particularly given the somewhat cloying way in which it is rendered), but I’m not sure that it’s enough finally to anchor a film that has drifted somewhat aimlessly for so long. This type of cynical, world-weary character seems to cry out for a voice-over monologue, a device that would give the audience some sense of the true nature of this character, and what he thinks about his life, how he understands the things he’s doing. Ben Kalmen spends plenty of time in this film waxing philosophical (and giving advice that he almost never realizes is going to wind up becoming bad advice), but you almost always get the feeling that he’s talking out of both sides of his mouth.

Having said all that, the ending does work reasonably well, even if it is a little too cute and cloying; the final shot is a little bit clumsy and not entirely convincing; and the result is a film that doesn’t quite achieve what it has set out to achieve. Directors Brian Koppelman and David Levien have a good go at it, though; and they certainly give Michael Douglas plenty of room to operate, but a couple of major flaws in the script is too much for even his considerable talents to overcome.

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