Movie Review

Movie Review: Blue Valentine (2010)

A great concept. Two excellent performances. Outstanding, even clever editing. A movie that could have taken its place with selected works by Robert Altman, Igmar Bergman, and John Cassevetes. But Blue Valentine fails spectacularly due to a weak plot, a weak character, and what appears to be artistic indecision. Simply put, Blue Valentine doesn't seem to know if it wants to be a European film, or an American film. Furthermore, it doesn't seem to want the audience to get attached to the characters, or have feelings about their relationship.

The fact that I have much to say about Blue Valentine is a testament to how many good elements are in the film. As I will explain, the editing is first rate. The acting is world class. Ryan Gosling, in particular, almost makes us love him with his charm and his old school, hipster, 20th century values.

Perhaps the biggest takeaway is what I told my partner as we walked out of AMC Empire 25. I said the movie shows Americans for what they really are: depressed, bummed out people. I know Americans have a reputation for being eternally positive and giddy. Americans love candy. Americans love amusements. Americans and Japanese play more video games and consume more movies that any other people. And back in the 90s, I was once told that Americans are easy to spot in Europe (especially northern Europe). They are the poorly dressed people who are always smiling. But Blue Valentine gives us a far more realistic view of typical American adults: most of them are unable or don't know how to enjoy life.

If Blue Valentine were a commentary on just how depressed Americans are today, then perhaps it would be a great movie. But the film does not make that argument. The film fails to achieve its goal, which was to make the audience like both the relationship being portrayed, and the partners in that relationship. This was supposed to be the story of boy pursues girl, boy and girl fall in love, and then, after a series of sad turning points, boy and girl fall out of love and split. Instead, this movie handicaps itself by having the girl never fall in love with the boy. How the hell is the audience supposed to get behind that?

Seriously, this was supposed to be a hankie movie? The audience was supposed to be saddened by the relationship's disintegration? Allow me to spoil the whole thing and count the ways this movie betrays the audience and gives them something that falls far short of the buzz and expectations that were set when the movie premiered at Sundance nearly one year ago.

*** Spoliers below!  But you shouldn't mind in this case. You'd know what this movie is about if you read a single review. ***

1. Dean (wonderfully played by Ryan Gosling) is a really nice working class stiff. Despite being shown the awful man he has become early in the film, we go back about five years to learn that when he was in his mid 20s, he was pretty darn cool. We see him join a moving company, and help an elderly man, Walter, move to a nursing home somewhere near the Poconos. Rather than simply dump Walter's boxes and drive off, Dean takes an extra hour to unpack and decorate Walter's room. It is the greatest part of the movie. Dean is creative, funny, and an all around good guy. His future wife, Cindy (the perpetually sad looking but underrated Michelle Williams), is also at the nursing home. In an edit that should inspire every film student alive, we see them make eye contact for the first time, and Dean begins his pursuit of Cindy. So to recap: Dean, a boy living in New York, decides to pursue Cindy, a college girl in rual Pennsylvania. And Cindy never sees the great thing that Dean did for Walter.

2. While Dean is chasing his seemingly impossible dream, we follow Cindy, and learn that while she was attending college in eastern Pennsylvania, she had a rash, aggressive, jock boyfriend, Bobby (Mike Vogel). An afternoon quickie in a dorm room leads to an unplanned pregnancy for Cindy. But by the time she learns that she is pregnant, she has already dumped Bobby (angered by the unprotected sex, it seems), and has opened up to Dean. The center of the film is the most charming. In a true cinéma vérité moment, shot with a handheld HD camera, through unclean panes of glass, we see Dean serenade Cindy with a 4-string ukulele and a song that Ryan Gosling wrote for the movie. Awesome, right? This movie is so wonderfully edited that the center of the movie is the warmest, most realistic moment between these two characters. The audience is going to fall in love with them, right?

3. Wrong. Cindy has no plans to tell Dean that she is pregnant. She prefers to wait for him to discover it. But in another awesome moment, Dean forces Cindy to reveal her condition while walking on the Manhattan Bridge. Cindy considers aborting her fetus, which was fathered by the violent asshole Bobby. She decides to get a D&C at a small town clinic. She goes so far as to be in the procedure room, legs spread, with a speculum up to her cervix, and a creepy looking male doctor injecting her with anesthetic (without a needle extender, I might about intimate service). However, Cindy lets the discomfort get the better of her, and she asks the doctor to stop the procedure. In an unrealistic motion, Cindy jumps up (isn't there a speculum in her?) and runs out to the waiting room for Dean to take her back to her dorm. On the bleak bus ride back to campus, Dean professes his love for Cindy. The feeling is never reciprocated.

4. Well, the rest, as they say, is history. Cindy decides to marry Dean, under the false pretence that marriage will bring stability and happiness in her life. Wrong. Dean shows incredible maturity, as he raises Cindy's daughter to become a beautiful little girl with promise. But Cindy's marriage and having a child at such a young age destroys her dream to become a doctor. She instead works at a rural Pennsylvania hospital as either a nurse or physician assistant (a PA in PA, I like to think). She grows to resent Dean for his carefree attitude, his untapped creativity, and his brief run as the better, more attentive parent. But a lack of love from Cindy drives Dean down a self destructive path to alcoholism. Dean transforms from the cool kid in Brooklyn to an asshole in aviators.

A Villiage Voice critic read the film as misogynist, arguing that the film portrays Cindy as the cause of Dean's negative transformation. But my read of the movie is that Cindy was unfortunately her own worst enemy. She shouldn't have kept the pregnancy (although the film wisely respects her choice). She shouldn't have married Dean. She should have been more honest with herself and acknowledged that she was never in love with Dean. I never blame the victim, but if Cindy had been more in touch with what she really wanted, this tragedy would not have happened. If Cindy had put herself first, there would be no movie.

Which brings us back to how this story is common in the real world. Too many men and women marry for the wrong reasons. Too many people don't prepare themselves for aging. Too many people simply stop living (or never start). Were we supposed to root for this doomed marriage to continue? We were presented with a 30 year old couple already living like depressed 50 year olds. How common is this couple in the real world? Far too common, I'm afraid.

The United States has this old reputation of being the optimistic, hopeful nation. We saved the world from fascism and imperial aggression in 1945. Heck, we saved South Korea from a communist takeover in 1953. We won the space race, as if that counts for anything. We built the Internet, and that does count. Our standard of living rose steadily between 1946 and 1973. And then it slowly went to hell.

But we clung to our glorious past in the years following 1973. We still had a healthy club culture in the 1970s, cocaine and all. We had a much needed, at times fun, sexual revolution. We had a long overdue political and economic empowerment of women. In pop culture, we had a fun 1950s revival in the 1970s, and a 1960s Motown revival in the 1980s. Movies by Steven Spielberg and George Lucas provided us with the guilty pleasures of the 30s, 40s and 50s in contemporary blockbuster packaging. And we even elected a president who tried hard to stay young, wore stylish chocolate brown suits, and offered jellybeans to visitors - all while denying or exacerbating the economic and international crises of the time (which continue today, of course).

We've gone from jellybeans to Xanax. I can point to Blue Valentine as evidence of our nation's current psyche, but I cannot recommend it as a great film because it fails to get the audience on Dean and Cindy's side. Rooting for Dean and Cindy is frankly a waste of time.

So if you want a similarly shot film that will make you love the protagonists, go back to 2007s Once. Or if you want to see a better disintegration of a marriage, then why not watch Igmar Bergman's miniseries Scenes From A Marriage (1973) or several Woody Allen movies, a couple of Robert Altman films, or several John Cassevettes films, including Faces (1968), Husbands (1970), or Opening Night (1977).

Movie Review: Welcome to the Rileys (2010)

I saw Welcome to the Rileys as an advance screening in New York on October 21st, 2010. The movie was introduced to the audience as a James Gandolfini vehicle that involves a stripper. Really, that was it. Imagine my shock and horror when the credits rolled some 90 minutes (which felt like 3 hours) later - that this was a Jake Scott film and that Ally Sheedy starred in it (for all but 60 seconds).

I could write a lot about the annoying continuity errors and editing mistakes. I won't. The problem with this movie is the screenplay, the direction, the music, the pacing, and even some of the photography.

James Gandolfini and Melissa Leo deliver excellent, sympathetic performances. But they are misdirected. They play a husband and wife living in Indianapolis. James Gandolfini sometimes has a southern accent, and sometimes reverts to his native Jersey accent. This is not his fault. It's Tony Scott's. Gandolfini plays Doug Riley, a money-wasting, risk-taking, yet also oddly grounded and disciplined plumbing supply salesman.

Melissa Leo's character, Lois, is a traumatized, sad, lonely woman who has been married to Mr. Riley for 29 years. We don't know how long she has refused to go outside, but it is well established (perhaps too established) that she has not left the house since the Riley's teenage daughter died in a fiery car accident. We get a glimpse of the auto accident's aftermath in the film's first shot. However, this being a Gandolfini movie, the audience will be forgiven for wondering if the burning Lincoln Town Car is a flash forward to a movie-ending car bomb. Maybe that's a stretch, but how was I supposed to know that the burning car was a flashback? I blame the director.

But back to Melissa Leo's character. Doug Riley goes on a business trip to New Orleans, but leaves a lot of emotional healing left unfinished at home. Following an emotionally empty phone conversation with Doug, Lois finally builds up her courage to leave her house and drive over 1,000 miles to have a much needed talk with her road warrior husband. But Jake Scott's misdirection appears once again. Being homebound for over 10 years, Lois is understandably clumsy and socially awkward. But is it played for laughs or is it supposed to be depressing and sad? The audience went from chuckles to silence multiple times during her 'escape' sequence. We see her taking many pills before heading out. She tries to get comfortable in her husband's Cadillac, but falls asleep before she can start the engine (did the pills do this? is this some timid suicide attempt?). She finally gets on the road and talks to a creepy man in a diner. The movie almost portrays the conversation as a positive step for her, as if being hit upon by a 50 year old guy who looks like Dennis Miller's brother is a nice thing.

I think the screenwriter was trying to tell us that she is socially inexperienced and vulnerable so it makes us uncomfortable to watch her fail to tell the man to leave her alone. But I also sense that Jake Scott had no clue what he wanted, and so we see a slow conversation that even includes the characters saying 'bye' to each other (clearly a more skilled director and editor would have cut that seconds earlier).

Welcome to the Rileys contains many strange moments like this, in which characters each say "bye" to each other multiple times over the phone, or showing characters hanging up a phone. This movie simply does not follow standard cinema grammar. It would be wonderful if it was done to make us feel uncomfortable and prevent us from picking up the film's beat and pacing. But I think it is simply poor directing and editing.

Doesn't anyone watch the entire film in the editing room anymore? Don't they burn a DVD and watch the rough cut at home? Do they watch it a couple of times, sit on it for a weekend, and then watch it again? In a Criterion interview for his 2008 film Che, Steven Soderbergh expressed his opinion that a declining number of directors watch their movie from beginning to end during the editing process. I agree with him.

Oh where did your character go, Ally Sheedy?

Did the filmmakers really need to cut out Ally Sheedy's character, but include every phone conversation -from first ring to hang up- simply to extend the film to 90 minutes? Did they really have a shortage of exterior establishing shots, so when we cut from one interior scene to another, we would understand that the location has changed? Think I'm kidding? Watch the movie (if you can get past the awful dialogue of the early diner scene 3 minutes in). I know very little about filmmaking, but was there a Second Unit and if so, what was their work to party ratio?

And when Mrs. and Mr. Riley finally have their reunion in New Orleans, there is zero emotional impact. There is a long build-up to the reunion, but then nothing happens when they finally embrace. In fact, their fighting scenes have more passion and truth than any of their embraces. Again, I blame the director.

A poor product like this should not earn Jake Scott a feature director's chair anytime soon. He is a skilled TV commercial and music video director. But this a terrible film. It makes one of his father's least successful films, Matchstick Men (2003), look very good in comparison (and remember that film had a similar parent-daughter theme running through it).

Do you want to see a slow family drama done really well? Watch Mike Leigh's Another Year (2010). It has some of the same themes of compassion and nurturing. And note just how better edited, directed, and paced that film is compared to this terribly mismanaged drama.

European Existentialist Dramas: Never Let Me Go and The American

Finally, two good movies in 2010!  There will be more to follow (Carlos, The Social Network, Armadillo, The Last Train Home).  But these are the first two I have seen in 2010 that pass the 'good' threshold.  Oh, I could also give honorable mention to Robert Rodriguez' Machete, since it delivered what it promised, and that was an explosive, raunchy late 1970s-style exploitation film.

But my focus is on these two very good films. Both are existentialist, in a way. But both are serious, highbrow stories that I think are meant to be consumed in completely different ways. And perhaps not coincidentally, both are from acclaimed music video directors, whose works have been deemed good enough to immortalize on collector DVDs.

I'll tackle the straighter film first - the long-awaited adaptation of Kazuo Ishiguro's 2005 novel, Never Let Me Go.

Mark Romanek has directed some of the most memorable and technically advanced music videos of the last 20 years. His most memorable works include "Closer" (Nine Inch Nails, 1994), "Rain" (Madonna, 1993), "Are You Gonna Go My Way" (Lenny Kravitz, 1993), "Devil's Haircut" (Beck, 1996), "99 Problems" (Jay-Z, 2004), "Criminal" (Fiona Apple, 1997), and "Scream" (Michael & Janet Jackson, 1995), the most expensive music video of the 1990s.

When Romanek finally made his second feature film, One Hour Photo (2002), it was predictably strong, if a little dated in feel (who still shoots their family photos using 35mm film?). But that Hitchcokian thriller starring Robin Williams in one of his best performances assured that Romanek would remain a feature director for the foreseeable future. And so, Never Let Me Go is his third feature in 25 years.

Aside from three irritating changes from the novel's plot, the movie adaptation of Never Let Me Go is very well done. The performances from Carey Mulligan, Kiera Knightley, and Andrew Garfield are pitch perfect. The cinematography is, at times, outstanding. Costume design is strong as well.

Getting back to the plot changes (that's a play on the novel's plot narrative device, by the way), I just wish the Norfolk music tape subplot had remained intact. I had expected the film to tell the story at a brisk pace, and I was correct. So why didn't the movie stay completely faithful to the novel, with the exception of the subplot involving Kathy's music tape? In the novel, she buys the tape herself as a young teenager, loses it, and then with Tommy's help, finds a replacement during the key road trip to Norfolk at age 19.  In the movie, Tommy buys her the original tape, and it is never lost. While I can see how this change can establish the love triangle between Kathy, Ruth, and Tommy, I think it weakens the whole significance of the Norfolk road trip. That trip represented a turning point for the three main characters, but without the mission to locate and buy a replacement music cassette, Tommy and Kathy are left with nothing to do and nothing to talk about, thus diminishing their character and relationship development.  I was puzzled by that.

Readers of the novel will also know that Kathy's music cassette establishes a relationship between her and the Helsham School art curator, "Madame."  But the movie's love triangle emphasis squashes that touching subplot in the novel.

As I've said before, artists are free to make any choices they wish. But I really expected the movie to follow the novel, given that Ishiguro was an executive producer, and his fellow EP wrote the screenplay.

But despite the changes, it is not as if the movie lacks emotional impact. Kathy H. doesn't have a whole lot to do, and the same goes for Carey Mulligan in the movie. But give her credit for delivering a moving, sad performance, as the only character who sheds tears for herself and her fellow Helsham classmates.

It is also Keira Knightley’s best performance to date (and a brave one, as she is a total bitch and her bad teeth are at last revealed).

Mark Romanek got the tone and look completely correct:  The color palette, the feel, the theme, and the stifling sense of dread. There is no escaping the life set for these young people. There is no escaping England.

Knightley's roles in the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise might be forgotten. She’ll be remembered for her great performance and green dress in Atonement and for this performance in Never Let Me Go. I wouldn’t be at all surprised if she wins an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actress.

Never Let Me Go is slowly going wide after opening in New York and L.A.

George Clooney is...l'americano

Anton Corbijn is a notable fashion photographer and has directed some of the most memorable and artistic music videos of the last 30 years. Known mainly for grainy black & white photography, he has immortalized rock and film stars such as Keith Richards, Iggy Pop, Sting, Cameron Diaz, Joy Division, Lou Reed, Johnny Depp, Tom Waits, REM, Depeche Mode, and perhaps most notably, U2, with his photography providing the cover art for The Joshua Tree (1987), Rattle & Hum (1988), and Achtung Baby (1991).

He was, of course, the near-exclusive photographer of Joy Division, and his Ian Curtis biopic, Control (2007) was magnificent. For Corbijn, it was a labor of love 27 years in the making.

His most memorable music videos include "Behind The Wheel" (Depeche Mode, 1987), "Enjoy The Silence" (Depeche Mode, 1990), "Hero of the Day" (Metallica, 1996), "Heart Shaped Box" (Nirvana, 1993), and "One" (U2, 1992).

He clearly has an affinity for spaghetti westerns, as he likes to produce videos of bands playing the roles of banditos, cowboys, or outlaws in the desert.  He has produced three such videos, actually: "Personal Jesus" (Depeche Mode, 1989), "Mama Said" (Metallica, 1996), and "All These Things That I've Done" (The Killers, 2005).

Which brings us to his sophomore feature, The American.

I really like this movie.  But I wonder if it is too harsh to suggest that it is completely unnecessary. We film connoisseurs don't need The American. We need an existentialist, male oriented, European art film like we need another reality TV star.

That's incredibly snobby, isn't it? I don't see wine connoisseurs complain when another Argentinean Malbec or New Zeland Pinot Noir comes to market. They might ignore it, but they seem to welcome increased quantities of the good stuff.

And that's what The American is - another dose of the good stuff. But there's a catch. By "good stuff" I mean the beautiful avant-garde and new wave dramas from the 1960s. Young audiences are going to steer well clear of that, with the exception of a few film students.

The American is based on a highly successful suspense novel, A Very Private Gentleman, by Martin Booth. Both the novel and the move have the same main character and general plot. Clark, a middle aged Lee Marvin-like character, is known in his business as a 'shadow dweller.' Clark goes by several names, including Jack, and Mr. Butterfly. He is an assassin for hire. But more often, he is hired to procure, construct, and provide weapons for other assassins. Working under cover as a butterfly collector and photographer, he hides in the twisty, maze-like, medieval, northern Italian village of Castel Del Monte, which beautifully serves to keep the suspense and tension fairly high throughout the movie.

The primary inspiration for the movie adaptation seems to be Jean-Pierre Melville's Le Samouraï (1967). It's a film that has been borrowed and remade often. Here is a list of films inspired by Le Samouraï:

The Driver (Walter Hill, 1978)

The Killer (John Woo, 1989)

Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai (Jim Jarmusch, 1999)

You Shoot, I Shoot (Pang Ho-Cheung, 2001)

The Limits of Control (Jim Jarmusch, 2009)

The fact that Jarmusch, a highly original and ultra-cool filmmaker in his own right, made two movies that quote Le Samouraï should tell us a lot about Melville's influence. Interestingly enough, Ghost Dog and The Limits of Control are Jarmush's least-liked films among American critics (although there has been an embrcing of Ghost Dog, lately).

Alain Delon is...Le Samouraï

It goes without saying that existing art influences new art. But in cinema, quotation and reference is not only accepted, it is practically encouraged by the filmmakers and educated film audiences, much to the delight of film scholars and critics.

And so The American does not limit itself to Le Samouraï. It is quite rich and sophisticated in its influences and visuals. There are many elements from Corbijn's own Depeche Mode videos. There are gorgeous overhead shots that invoke travel magazines or car commercials. There is also a very blatant homage to the spaghetti western masterpiece, Once Upon A Time in the West (Leone, 1969).

And then there are the women: tall, pretty, continental - who remind me of the leading ladies in about 20 French and Italian films, including Repulsion (Polanski, 1965), The Passenger (Antonioni, 1975), Pickpocket (1959) and Les Biches (Chabrol, 1968).  

Les Biches (Bad Girls) was marketed as a thriller, but really it was a male fantasy, namely Chabrol's. Leading man Jean-Louis Trintignant would naturally have two impossibly beautiful women (one of whom being the director's wife) fight over him in luxurious St. Tropez. And the same is certainly true with George Clooney. He can't help it that women want him. In The American, they might both want to kill him and bed him (just not in that order).

And that's where my slightly subversive read of The American comes into play. As beautiful, artistic, and pretentious as this movie is, I don't think it is meant to be taken seriously at all. It's an extended fashion spread in Esquire or GQ, in which our male model dodges bad guys and woos long haired women while in his car, on a Vespa, or at an outdoor cafe. This is fashion, not just cinema. And my gosh, is it beautiful. 

Oh sure, there's a story. The audience is expected to figure out (and I think most film-conscious viewers will figure out) that as movie assassins get older (if they make it that far), it becomes impossible to peacefully leave the business. Surely all that killing and double crossing produces enemies who hide in the shadows. In every European town and village the elder assassin hides out, he is never safe. It is an impossible situation. But at least there is some time to enjoy fine food, wine, liquor, coffee, and women - hence the reason more than one American critic compared this movie to Eat Pray Love, which I find hilarious. 

George Clooney's Clark is hired by a man we don't know, to construct a rife for a female assassin we don't know, to do a high profile killing we'll never know, all for reasons unexplained, leaving many questions that will never be answered. Sounds like a blast, right?

Clark's handler is played by Belgian actor, Johan Leysen, who resembles an elderly Daniel Craig or Steve McQueen (brilliant!). The female assassin is played by the steel-eyed, sextilingual Finnish actress Irina Björklund. This really is a European art house film that happens to star America's most recognizable leading man. You could argue that hasn't happened since Robert De Niro in 1900 (Bertolucci, 1976).

I think if a viewer puts away his or her expectation of a heart pounding Hollywood thriller aside, and realizes that it's both an homage to 1960s cinema and highbrow eye candy, the film becomes extremely enjoyable. I think the film fully succeeds at what it declares to be - a pretentious avant-garde thriller. I can't knock this movie for doing exactly what it set out to do. And besides, I liked it at lot. Sure, I already own Le Samouraï and Ghost Dog on DVD. I've seen this movie before. But I'm an older, nostalgic  film scholar. I remember when films like this were taken seriously, despite having plots that were equally thin and flawed.

Screenwriter Rowan Joffe (28 Weeks Later, and the son of Oscar-winner Roland Joffe) did a pretty good job modeling Clark on Clint Eastwood's characters in Leone's westerns. The screenplay often dictates the cuts - usually after a character says something crucial or appropriate to end a scene. I think the most predictable cut is the scene in which Clark is talking to the village priest over dinner.  The priest is trying to get Clark to open up and start confessing his sins. The priest says, "A man can be rich, if he has God in his heart."  Clark replies, "I don't think God is very interested in me, Father."  Cut.  It's the school of screenwriting that includes Michael Mann and Tony Gilroy, and it usually works.

Is Clooney 'smizng'?  Has he been listening to Tyra?

Just don't expect the minimalist screenplay to answer any questions or rise up to match the visual beauty of this film. As I said, visuals trump the story in this European production. But despite this gap, Anton Corbijn is able to maintain a key element of both the novel and the film, and that is suspense. If the sudden, violent opening doesn't hook you, then the suspense fails. But I think it succeeds. Once it is quickly established that almost everyone who pays attention to Clarke wants him dead, it is easy to get sucked into the film's suspense and have a somewhat thrilling ride as Clarke has to constantly watch his back and erase his tracks.

And if the ride doesn't deliver the thrills for everyone, perhaps the generous curves of Violante Placido will entertain the remaining viewers enough to forget that they were tricked into seeing a weird foreign film. You have to admit, "baby got back." 

Stop looking at that butt!  Did you know her mom played Apollonia in The Godfather Part II at age 17? 

Film Review: Solitary Man

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.