A Solitary Man
Directed by: Brian Koppelman & David Levien
Written by: Brian Koppelman
Starring: Michael Douglas, Jenna Fischer, Susan Sarandon, and Danny DeVito
You see him in the rear-view mirror, but he’s not looking back. His eyes look stubbornly ahead at an open highway as his life is under construction.
Those eyes and that face belong to Michael Douglas, who in A Solitary Man plays Ben Kalmen, a disgraced degenerate of a character not unlike those that many other aging actors have done in the past few years. A once-wealthy Baby Boomer taken from his pedastal of pleasure and placed in a rapidly swirling drain is a popular story when Oscar season rolls around. Jeff Bridges and Mickey Rourke did it to their own ends, and now Douglas does it to his own.
It’s hard to criticize a performance from an actor who so obviously put everything he had into it, and I don’t intend to try. Douglas has made a killing in his career playing the morally biesieged version of the common American male. His best performances find him out of that form or, like in A Solitary Man, cleverly subverting it.
This Baby Boomer doesn’t share the typical values associated with his kind. He doesn’t want to be a part of this group- getting Social Security or mentoring his grandson. He wants to go to college parties, bang 18-year-olds and play Madden with his grandson.
Of course, this kind of behavior isn’t accepted in America and by extension its movies, so Ben must be taken on a directionless journey to find his moral compass. Brian Koppelman, who wrote the script and co-directed the movie, doesn’t want the familiarity of that premise to be present during his movie. Thankfully, it isn’t.
A Solitary Man gives its anti-hero a refreshing choice: does he want redemption or does he want to go pedal to the metal until he hits the grave? No answers come directly, and you will be charged based on what you have seen to draw your own conclusions by the film’s end. This will frustrate many who are drawn to a typical Michael Douglas performance, but those drawn to this movie for other reasons, like me, may find it liberating. You aren’t told how to feel, and you aren’t morally condescended to. His actions may abhor you, but there’s still a lot to like.
That being said, this movie does at times fall into the trappings it so desperately wants to avoid. Ben does alienate his family, from his ex-wife (Susan Sarandon) to his daughter (Jenna Fischer) and his girlfriend (Mary Louise-Parker), through a series of bad life choices that the audience sees started long before the movie did. It all begins with a doctor’s warning that the movie says happened “About six-and-a-half years ago.” The then-wealthy and seemingly-unstoppable Ben is shown a sign of his mortality, and he hides behind young women and financial risks.
All of these women are great in their limited scenes, as are Danny DeVito and Jesse Eisenberg, matching Douglas blow-for-blow. The bracing wit of the screenplay and the confidence of all the actors involved help alleviate the occasional speed-bumps of the story.
Aging actors giving career-defining performances will never be a true genre, though the fact that they’re being made frequently, and that they aren’t half-bad seems to suggest that they’re here to stay. As long as the performances and the movies aren’t just for show, there’s no good reason why they should leave. The characters flee responsibility and resist going quietly, and we’re in no position to stop them.