It is rare for an American film to give us a despicable protagonist from beginning to end, but that is one of the notable achievements of Solitary Man (2009), the latest opus from Brian Koppleman and David Levien, the talented writers who gave us the very entertaining Rounders (1998) and Oceans 13 (2007). They have created a character who speaks his mind and will not hesitate to harm or manipulate others. Better still, they wrote the character for one of Hollywood’s taken-for-granted actors, Michael Douglas. I just wish the film lived up to its quality beginning and ending. I found the middle of the film to be full of clichés and lulls that should have been ironed out. Nevertheless, Solitary Man has some good scenes and is superior to two other films this year about white men going through late life crises, Paper Man and Multiple Sarcasms.
Solitary Man is being well hyped by men’s magazines like Esquire and GQ. But as those magazines also hyped the overrated In The Air last year, I kept my expectations low for Solitary Man. And I'm glad I did.
The movie starts out strong. Dialogue is crisp. The static, medium-long shots quickly establish the film’s clean aesthetic. We are immediately introduced to Ben Kalmen (Michael Douglas), a disgraced, unemployed, womanizing 60 year-old man who once ruled a tri-state network of auto dealerships in the 80s and 90s. But now, he carries more pounds and “no net worth” (as Gordon Gekko would say). His dealerships were caught running a leasing scam that victimized both customers and the auto manufacturer. FTC fines and legal fees have washed him out. But he is no less bitter, cantankerous, or cynical. Nor is he willing to grow up, a primary theme of this character study.
Soon after we see him run away from his doctor’s prescribed heart tests, Ben agrees to escort his girlfriend’s 18 year-old daughter Allyson,(played by British starlet Imogen Poots), to his alma mater in Massachusetts to grease her application interview and assure her acceptance. The movie then treats us to two excellent scenes that should raise most viewers’ expectations. First, Ben and Allyson exchange rapid-fire put-downs and subtle flirtations at the airport, while other middle-aged businessmen stare at Ben with a mixture of envy and discomfort. Second, we’re treated to one of the movie’s best lines as Ben gets into a scuffle with a student on the quad. “You call me an asshole,” Douglas belts out in his trademark nasal voice, “I’m gonna earn it.” So far, so good. At times, the film has a beautiful mix of comedy, drama, and male shamelessness that most guys (myself included) should like.
But the middle of the movie goes soft, it seems. Ben’s life continues to tear at the seams, which is well established and directed. He loses just about everything back in New York. The plot has him going back to his old campus in Massachusetts with his tail between his legs. That would be fine if he were going to work for the university (he was a major donor when his business was at its peak). But the film chooses the less original comedy route of the “dirty old man on campus.” Ben reconnects with a college friend, a wise sage played by a refreshingly calm Danny DeVito, takes a job at a diner, and ends up embarrassing himself at more than one kegger. While I agree that the plot required him to go into exile out of New York, I was a little disappointed to see his ex-wife (Susan Sarandon) disappear for a long stretch in the film, while his daughter (Jenna Fischer) became involved in multiple subplots –at least one of which felt contrived and false. Jesse Eisenberg (The Squid and the Whale, Zombieland) makes a few appearances as a sophomore hoping to make Ben his mentor. Of course we know that can’t happen. We witness time and again how Ben is a poor role model and sometimes his own worst enemy. But what could have been a satisfying on campus subplot seemed to be where the movie grinds to a halt and ends up being as awkward and aloof as Eisenberg’s character.
After some thought, I think I know why this film didn’t work for me. I don’t think Ben’s back story was effectively presented. Quite often, he is reminded (and therefore we are lectured) of his past actions by his daughter and ex-wife. We are introduced to Ben well after his late life crisis has begun. I wonder if the film would have been better served by a prologue scene, or an earlier starting point (with the frat parties cut out towards the end). When Ben speaks to others, the film works. When others describe Ben’s past to him the film seems to suffer. I don’t think an earlier starting point would have made Ben more likable. But it probably would have raised audiences’ expectations of his redemption, and would shrink the subplots in the middle. Perhaps a longer introduction would have given us tighter second and third acts.
Artists are free to make decisions, of course. But I was a little surprised to learn that Levien and Koppleman didn’t split the writing as they usually do. For this screenplay, Koppleman did all of the writing, with Levien serving as his soundboard. They had toyed with this story for years. But they didn’t revise their script all that much –probably by choice. They are clearly talented, experienced writers who know how to speed up stories through the middle act (does anyone remember the blazingly-fast set up in Oceans Thirteen?). But with Solitary Man, they set out to make a small independent film their way, at a slower pace. That, plus the non Hollywood ending deserves a lot of credit. But such a strong performance by Douglas deserved a firmer and less clichéd second act. His character needed time in exile to build a respectable comeback. But instead he spent most of his time with characters and subplots that diminished his presence and the audience’s enjoyment of the film. Having an unlikable character complete a personal journey while keeping the audience’s interest is no easy task (see Mike Leigh’s Naked (1993) to appreciate it done beautifully). But I fear that Koppleman and Levien set a high bar that they could not reach half of the time in this film. And the writing is to blame.
Cinematography by Alwin H. Kuchler (Ratcatcher, Sunshine) is first-rate and elevates this film above the standard indie fare. Honorable mentions should also go to costume design and the pristine on set dialogue recording. This film had to be shot quickly, so City Island (Bronx) serves as Massachusetts. But found locations, such as Ben’s girlfriend’s condo, add some style and an authentic uptown Manhattan feel.