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Solitary Man

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Solitary Man

The opening shots of Solitary Man are of Michael Douglas hurrying through Manhattan’s upper East Side streets as Johnny Cash’s late-life recording of Neil Diamond’s ploddingly tuneful song of the same title plays on the track. This is inconsequentially misleading because the song has nothing to do with the movie, which aspires to be neither more nor less than a portrait of Ben Kalmen (Douglas), a roguishly self-sabotaging slick operator. It follows Ben’s increasing social isolation and degeneration over several months’ time.

In the opening scene he’s headed for Central Park to meet his daughter and grandson, typically arriving late. And typically, he embraces the daughter (Jenna Fischer) and creeps her out a little by softly asking her not to call him “Dad,” but to pretend she’s his girlfriend. There is, you see, a stylish young babe loitering in the vicinity. Ben’s got moxie, even if he’s lacking somewhat in concern for the appropriate and others’ feelings.

Ben used to be somebody. Not now. He had a number of car dealerships in the Northeast and was a TV-spot personality, but his modest commercial empire collapsed amid criminal charges of fraud and a guilty plea. Now, his only hope for a commercial comeback is via the connections of his paramour’s rich family. This woman (Mary Louise Parker) delegates him to chaperone her 18-year-old, jaded daughter, Allyson, to a college admissions interview at Ben’s New England alma mater, during which trip Ben can’t resist screwing up (and screwing the daughter, with disastrous and dangerous consequences).

Ben is almost all about himself and Solitary Man is all about Ben. This puts a lot of responsibility on Douglas, and, unfortunately, the filmmakers—Brian Koppelman who wrote and codirected, and co-director David Levien—haven’t given him a lot to work with. Solitary Man has been described as a comedy and is largely structured like one, but it’s not really very funny. Ben’s exaggerated maneuvering and resultant screwups are bleakly consistent. His middle-aged hound-dog adventuring and the scrapes it lands him in are the basis for the humor the movie means to elicit. And watching him operate does have its comedic aspect. A side story in which he plays a crass Dutch uncle to a bright, serious, and diffidently lovelorn—read frustrated—freshman at the college (Jesse Eisenberg) is the closest Solitary Man comes to warm or lighthearted amusement. Ben’s talking himself into Allyson’s hotel room by giving her the benefit of his expert sex therapy advice has some boundary-challenging humor.

But increasingly, his dangerous efforts at self-satisfaction are too sad and alarming for real comedy. The movie presents Ben as reckless but fatalistic, one who understands the luck of the draw, but this approach doesn’t really play out convincingly.

There’s a lot riding on Douglas’ performance (he’s in every scene) and he doesn’t make up for what the movie lacks. He’s smooth and sometimes deft at his line readings, giving the part a more complex tenor, but he doesn’t create much more insight into Ben than Koppelman’s shallow script does. And he sometimes seems to be coasting, as if he’s saving himself for his imminent reprise of Gordon Gekko in Oliver Stone’s sequel to Wall Street. His work as another sort of screwup in Curtis Hanson’s Wonder Boys a few years ago was more subtle, probing, and witty.

The movie was put together during the financial industry’s recent meltdown amid institutionalized greed and grandiosity, but the filmmakers eschew any sociological perspective on Ben’s behavior. At the very end, as if they sensed this inadequacy of context and content, a pop-psych midlife panic is briefly slapped on by way of explanation. It almost registers with as much banality as Diamond’s song lyrics.

Watch the trailer for Solitary Man

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