In this past year we’ve had “A Serious Man” and “A Single Man,” and now—thanks to the Johnny Cash song played over the opening credits—a solitary one. And though the film by Brian Koppelman and David Levien isn’t quite in the league of those extraordinary pictures, it’s certainly an improvement over their earlier effort, the younger-generation mobster tale “Knockaround Guys” (2002). And it gives Michael Douglas the opportunity to shine in a role perfectly suited to his talents. He hasn’t been this good since “Wonder Boys.”
Douglas plays Ben Kalmen, whom we meet in a brief prologue back in 2004, when he was a high-flying New York City car dealer known for his honesty. But when he visits his doctor, he’s told that he needs heart tests—news that shakes him to the core. Six years later, Ben’s a completely different man. Divorced from his wife Nancy (Susan Sarandon), he’s become an inveterate womanizer with an eye for much younger partners who can be won over by his aggressive come-ons. Professionally he’s crashed and burned, losing his string of dealerships as the result of a scam that fleeced customers and company alike and forced him into a plea bargain with the courts. And though he’s idolized by his adoring little grandson (Jake Richard Siciliano), his daughter Susan (Jenna Fischer) is becoming increasingly upset at his unreliability, and her husband is absolutely hostile.
Ben plans to dig himself out of his desperate financial situation through his relationship with a rich socialite Jordan Karsch (Mary-Louise Parker), whose father has the connections that can get BMW’s approval for a new dealership he intends to build in a prime location. But she demands that he accompany her Lolita-like daughter Allyson (Imogen Poots) on a campus visit to his alma mater, where he still has clout because of his huge donations during the glory days. His penchant for getting into trouble follows him there. While his intervention with the dean has the desired effect and his glib, man-of-the-world advice makes a great impression on Daniel Cheston (Jesse Eisenberg), the nerdy student assigned to show him around, Ben makes a major mistake with Allyson that accelerates his downward spiral. He’s ultimately forced to move back to his old college town and take a menial job with his beefy buddy Jimmy Merino (Danny DeVito) at his corner diner.
Kalmen is obviously a self-destructive guy with the gift of gab and a bulldog demeanor, and Douglas, who’s in virtually every scene, plays him to the hilt, capturing his unquenchable lust, his phony bonhomie and—most importantly—the intense sadness he’s desperately trying to hide behind the show of false bravado. “Solitary Man” is a basically a character study, and Douglas brings the character vividly to life.
But obviously he doesn’t do it alone. Koppelman provides him with lots of pungent dialogue, and Douglas savors every line. And he’s surrounded by an able supporting cast. DeVito takes pride of place as an ordinary fellow who’s an authentic friend, but he’s matched by Poots, who draws a sharp portrait of a self-absorbed, calculating young woman. Sarandon and Eisenberg bring their customary credible presence to smaller but pointed roles, and Fischer, from “The Office,” navigates skillfully between concern for her father and anger with him. Only Parker seems too broad; she’s obviously going for a highly affected, snooty air, but comes across as a stilted caricature.
On the technical side, “Solitary Man” is excellent, with cinematography by Alwin Kuchler that makes good use of the New York locations and the design team—production designer Robert Pearson, art director Doug Huszti and set decorator Regina Graves, as well as costumer Jenny Gering—hitting all the marks the various settings require. Except for the Cash song, the picture eschews a music score, relying on ambient sound and silences—an unusual choice that works splendidly here.
Like the underappreciated “Wonder Boys,” “Solitary Man” probably won’t find the audience it deserves. But it provides Douglas with one of the juiciest roles he’s ever had, and he relishes every moment of it.