Michael Douglas is a sweetly sour title character
As he hits his mid-60s, Michael Douglas is looking more and more like his father, Kirk, in the tightness of his features and aggressive jut of his jaw. And Ben Kalmen, sardonically referred to in “Solitary Man’’ by his former title, “New York’s honest car dealer,’’ is a part that Kirk might relish, even as it fits neatly in with the rogues gallery that Douglas the younger has established over decades of fine, nasty work.
“Solitary Man’’ is the first movie to be directed by screenwriter Brian Koppelman (“Rounders,’’ “Oceans 13’’). It’s a character film, and Ben is its character, a man who hasn’t fallen from grace so much as ejected himself from it. Divorced from a good woman (Susan Sarandon), estranged from most of his family, a pariah in the auto industry and much of New York’s business and social circles, Ben pleases no one but himself and, by extension, the more curious and forgiving members of the audience. We see what he doesn’t, though: an old man running as fast as he can toward his vanishing youth.
When we first meet Ben, he’s joining his daughter (Jenna Fischer of “The Office’’) and young grandson (Jake Siciliano) for a Riverside Park playdate, making sure the boy calls him “Captain Ben’’ so as not to put off the blond bombshell on a nearby bench. Throughout “Solitary Man,’’ gazing at beautiful women serves as the hero’s sustenance, with food a distant second. If he can still flirt, he still matters. A salesman to the last, Ben believes in the product, even if everyone else has stopped buying.
Having disgraced himself with the car dealer’s equivalent of a Ponzi scheme, Ben has paid his fine and done hard time (one night in jail) and is desperate to get back in the game. The father of his current girlfriend (Mary-Louise Parker) has connections that could win approval for a new dealership. The girlfriend also has a college-bound daughter, played by the lovely and ineffably named Imogen Poots, who drips with know-it-all hauteur and might not be above playing a game of Daddy with Ben. Presented with a good idea and a bad one, trust our man to jump on the hand grenade every single time.
The visit to the college — Ben’s alma mater — is rich with the human comedy of self-inflicted damage. Accompanying the girlfriend’s daughter onto campus, he picks a fight with a hulking Ultimate Frisbee player and befriends a timid sophomore guide (Jesse Eisenberg), dispensing sexual wisdom with threadbare bravado. “There is nothing noble in failure,’’ Ben asserts, readily ignoring his own life.
Why do we keep watching this sad, sad man? Because he’s ecstatic as long as he avoids facing reality, and Douglas makes that ecstasy a marvelous thing to behold. By the film’s midpoint, Ben has sunk to working in the off-campus diner operated by an old school chum (Danny DeVito) and he can’t believe his good fortune: So many college girls, so little time. Ben has no fear of death — which is always interesting to watch — because it’s vastly preferable to the sexual invisibility that comes with age.
“Solitary Man’’ is too shapeless and cursorily plotted to fully work as a story, but Koppelman and his co-director, David Levien, generously surround the hero with reliable actors doing solid work; if you can get past the catastrophe of Ben’s behavior, the film’s a genuine pleasure. At its best, “Solitary Man’’ feels like one of those novels told by a beautiful screw-up in feckless first-person prose — a book by J.P. Donleavy, maybe — but because it’s a movie, we’re allowed to be inside Ben’s head and outside him simultaneously. It takes a confident actor to swing this freely, an acrobat with a working knowledge of life’s jokes and disasters. But Douglas has always enjoyed playing on the knife-edge of egotism. For him — and for us — that’s where the fun lies.
Ty Burr can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.