Thursday, May 13, 2010

“Solitary Man” – Movie Review

Last night was the final session for the Spring Semester of my movie class and we saw the drama Solitary Man, starring Michael Douglas, Susan Sarandon, Danny DeVito and Mary-Louise Parker.

After a scandal ruins his successful business, the owner of a chain of car dealerships watches helplessly as both his personal and professional life collapse around him -- but when he's given opportunities to get back on his feet, will his past self – destructive behavior prove to be too much of an obstacle for him to overcome?

Life is good if you're Ben Kalmen (Douglas) – or, at least, it used to be, up until almost seven years ago. As the wealthy owner of a chain of car dealerships in New York and New Jersey, this successful businessman was leading a pretty sweet life until a business scandal caused him to lose all of his dealerships. At around the same time, his long-time marriage to his wife Nancy (Sarandon) ended in divorce when she discovered he'd been cheating on her. Now down on his luck, his girlfriend Jordan (Parker) asks him for a favor – since she's come down with a cold, Jordan can't take her daughter to a college interview, so she requests Ben take her instead. To sweeten the deal, she offers the assistance of her rich, influential father to help Ben get a new car dealership to revive his career. With this as an incentive, Ben relents and takes Jordan's daughter for her interview.
During the trip, Ben succumbs to his baser instincts and winds up seducing Jordan's daughter. Upon returning home, the daughter reveals their liaison to her mother, who promptly dumps Ben and sabotages his chances at getting the new car dealership. Finding himself increasingly short on cash to pay his rent, he seeks out financial assistance from his daughter, who reluctantly turns over some money she'd gotten from her mother as a birthday gift. Unable to get a new dealership, Ben tries to get a job at existing dealerships. By now, however, his reputation precedes him, thus preventing him from gaining employment. Getting desperate, he seeks out Jimmy (DeVito), an old college pal who inherited his father's diner; feeling sorry for the former friend he hasn't heard from in over 30 years, Jimmy gives him a job working in the diner. This seems to be working out reasonably well for a while until Ben runs into Jordan's daughter at the diner; it turns out that she's now attending the nearby college where Ben took her to interview when he was still with her mother. When she tells her mother of Ben's whereabouts, Jordan calls Ben and orders him to stay clear of her daughter; after he ignores her request to leave, she hires a thug to beat up Ben and threaten him if he doesn't get lost immediately.
Soon realizing that he cannot afford his apartment any longer, Ben is finally forced to move into a much less luxurious space, where even there, he encounters difficulty making the rent in a timely fashion. After time and again trying to seduce younger women (and occasionally succeeding), he finally begins to see the error in his ways when he becomes confronted by people who have been hurt by his various dalliances, causing irreparable damage to various personal, familial and professional relationships. But when he ultimately gets one final chance at straightening out his life once and for all, will he take it or will his constantly self – destructive behavior force him permanently down the path to ruin?


"Solitary Man" contains excellent performances all around, including and especially by Douglas, who comes off so convincingly as the slick, smarmy, smooth-talker with a sexual addiction that proves to be his downfall on more than one occasion. As the wife, Sarandon is warm, considerate, understanding and above all sexy – begging the question why Douglas' character would leave her in the first place (but also pointing out how seriously flipped – out he is). DeVito comes off as a genuinely caring mensch and his character is given perhaps the best speech in the entire movie. If there are any reservations I had about the movie, it would be that some of the exposition is delivered in a way that's a bit too on-the-nose; somewhat surprising, given the many successful movies this screenwriting team has developed over the years.
Although I would definitely give this movie a strong recommendation, it is with an equally strong caveat attached. At its heart, I suppose you could say that this movie is ultimately about redemption – albeit a half – hearted and uncertain one, with an ambiguous ending that requires the viewer to draw one's own conclusion about how the character of Ben eventually turns out. Douglas' character is mostly an unsympathetic and unlikeable scumbag – not necessarily good qualities for your protagonist, but it nevertheless makes him both compelling and fascinating as you stand by and watch the guy enact a meltdown of immense proportions. As a result, such a character can turn off quite a few folks as this "hero" isn't particularly "heroic" in most of the film. I loved Scorsese's "Raging Bull" for many of the same reasons I enjoyed this movie; there are many similarities between Jake LaMotta and Ben in terms of their self – destructive nature. However, as great as "Raging Bull" was, I do know people who either chose not to see it or did see it, but disliked it; in either case, their reason was the same – they didn't care for the idea of watching a movie where the main character was so despicable that they weren't able to root for him. Despite all of the positive comments I made about this flick, you may want to keep that in mind if you're considering seeing "Solitary Man". Although this has a handful of name stars in its cast, this is a small, independent movie and as such may not wind up getting much in the way of advertisement or a wide distribution; so, if it doesn't find its way to a movie theater in your area, then definitely keep an eye out for it either on cable TV or as a DVD rental/download.
After the screening, there was an interview with the screenwriters, Brian Koppelman & David Levien, who (unusually) also collaborated on directing the movie as well. These guys have quite an impressive track record – they've written screenplays for "Rounders" (which I did not see, but about which I've heard many good things), "Knockaround Guys" (which I did see and think it's a fun movie – another one I'll recommend, if you've never had the chance) and one of their bigger hits, "Oceans 13". After one screening, they said someone commented about Douglas' character, "This guy is so bad that he makes Gordon Gekko look like Mahatma Gandhi!". In working with Douglas on the movie, one of the writers said that Douglas told them he was able to play the character of Ben because he was able to find something likeable about him – he figured that because of the good people he had surrounded himself with (his ex-wife, his daughter, his friend Jimmy), Ben himself also must have been a good person at some point in his life, too, but somehow success got him all turned around in the wrong direction. The writers also spoke at great length about their background; meeting as teenagers in high school while growing up in Long Island, they started collaborating on screenplays together before going off to college. After college, they kept in touch throughout the years as one moved to Hollywood to become an assistant to a literary agent and the other remained in New York to pursue a career in the music business (eventually going on to work with Tracy Chapman). When they later reunited in New York, they resumed their screenwriting collaboration and wound up selling their first screenplay while still in their late 20's.