DVD Review: A darkly entertaining nature film about the womanizing lion in decline, Solitary Man and its star Michael Douglas come up a little short on honest, revelatory emotions. But the still-magnetic actor and his supporting cast keep the film plenty compelling.
It’s become common for older Hollywood leading men to take an introspective “victory lap” (or desperate plea) later in their careers, playing off their long-established images to reflect back on the darker, more soulful guts of that same iconic image. Eastwood of course did it in Unforgiven and Gran Torino, Stallone did it in Rocky Balboa, even Mickey Rourke did to an extent in The Wrestler. Jack Nicholson has pretty much made an entire third-stage career out of examining the “Jack Nicholson” persona on screen.
Now it’s Michael Douglas’s turn to step back and look at what the typical “Micheal Douglas” character would be like in the impending autumnal years—both in the upcoming Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps, and even more so here in Solitary Man. (And yes, while tabloid hype is usually loathsome and irrelevant, Douglas’ current cancer battle undeniably adds a layer of poignancy to these sort of mortality heavy roles.)
Solitary Man, written and directed by Rounders and Oceans 13 scribes Brian Koppelman and David Levien, is being marketed as a swaggering, babe-bagging good-time with an Old Lion (Douglas) still on the prowl as he imparts life wisdom (and bird-dogging tricks) to an acolyte (the suddenly ubiquitous Jesse Eisenberg, all but reprising his role from Roger Dodger).
As with most marketing, that’s not entirely accurate. Yes, Douglas’ Ben Kalmen is a relentless skirt-chaser, desperately trying to shore up his own impending mortality by bedding as many younger women as possible–some are friends of his long-suffering daughter (The Office’s Jenna Fischer), some could be be his granddaughter. But smooth-talking Ben’s number-one target is himself—that’s who he’s really trying to seduce into believing a line.
Solitary Man is no “age is just a number,” “live life to the fullest, whatever your AARP status” feel-good, rascally romp. In fact, Ben is a fairly damaged, downward spiraling figure—a disgraced, divorced car dealer, he’s scrambling for a second chance on several fronts. And early on Ben’s constant carousing burns up what little emotional and financial savings he had and speeds his descent. The film is intended as a cautionary tale in which Ben is to be seen as a pathetic, increasingly ineffectual Lothario done in by his reckless pursuit of death-defying lust.
All that works well to an extent, but what keeps Solitary Man from being a triumphant character study is that Douglas himself seems unwilling to really turn Ben’s sad, corrupted, delusional psyche inside out. Douglas could be playing some version of himself or at least his screen image, but he’s not quite a nuanced—or brave–enough actor to really condemn Ben’s behavior.
Sure the Don Juan is flawed, but Douglas still wants to make him secretly admirable—he still wants us to be impressed by Ben’s alpha-dog lifestyle, even when that lifestyle is broken and stripped away. Rather than tearing down the “Micheal Douglas” façade, the Douglas Persona ends up overwhelming the narrative and character arc–we never see Ben fall all the way down, and Solitary Man comes up a little short on the emotional wallop it intended to land.
Luckily the movie has a fine supporting cast to round things out. Susan Sarandon and Mary Louise Parker play Ben’s stalwart (and much more emotionally self-realized) ex-wife and his current almost-age-appropriate girlfriend/sugar mama. The excellent Imogen Poots and Olivia Thirlby play a couple of much younger co-eds–one too mature to fall for the Cassanova routine, the other a skilled manipulator who plays Ben much more deftly than he does her.
The cast’s true stand-out is Danny DeVito as an old college pal of Ben. Amidst all the conniving and grand-stand posturing, it’s the usually clownish DeVito whose character comes off the most human, the most real and honest.
All this makes Solitary Man a very engaging and watchable film, even if it doesn’t quite have the guts to go where it needs to. Douglas and the film makers may not be willing to completely expose Ben’s complicated, conflicted soul, but there’s no denying the actor is still a lot of fun to watch roam the screen.
More Films About Aging, Regret and Mortality from redbox:
- That Evening Sun
- A Single Man (read my full review)
- The Ghost Writer (read my full review)
- The Last Station (read my full review)
- Crazy Heart (read my full review)
- The Private Lives of Pippa Lee (read more in my Picks)
- Five Minutes of Heaven (read my full review)
- Everybody’s Fine (read Jame’s full review)
- It’s Complicated (read Jame’s full review)
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