Solitary Man (2009)
★★★ / ★★★★
Six and a half years ago, Ben Kalmen (Michael Douglas), a successful and influential man in the car business, had a physical examination. His doctor expressed concern about his EKG and recommended that he returned for further tests. Ben never went back. Fast forward to the present, the man pretty much lost everything: he is no longer a magnate of his profession, he has lost all his money in order to avoid jail for being a grifter, and his relationship with his ex-wife (Susan Sarandon) and daughter (Jenna Fischer) has essentially fallen apart. Ben has a girlfriend (Mary-Louise Parker), very rich and loyal, but he just cannot help but sleep with women in their twenties. Ben leads a life not worth living—a life of unhealthy addictions and bad decisions—only he is unaware of it.
Directed by Brian Koppelman and David Levien, “Solitary Man” takes an aging character who is difficult to like, despite his smooth words, due to his overconfidence and bouts of overcompensation and convinces us, even just a little bit, that he, too, deserves a bit of happiness. The many dramatic elements avoids in drowning the film in syrupy romance or possibility of family reconnection. Its positive messages about redemption, or least an attempt at redemption, are in small, sometimes muted, ways.
Douglas’ performance is hypnotic. I enjoyed the way he carries his character with pride when Ben is surrounded by people, especially young adults (Jesse Eisenberg, Olivia Thirlby), but he is a complete mess when there is no one around to impress. In some ways, he is a bit like you and me, only more exaggerated to the point of emotional self-destruction.
The best scenes involve Ben taking Allyson (Imogen Poots), his girlfriend’s daughter, to her college interview in Boston and the two of them having to spend the night together. Their flirtation over drinks feels so wrong, obviously because of the wide age difference and, more importantly, that they are potentially each other’s step-father and step-daughter, but I wondered and was excited about how far the filmmakers will be willing to go to explore their relationship, whether it be physical, emotional, or both.
The way it plays out is handled with a satisfying balance of elegance and sadness. Poots does a great job holding her own. She looks like a French fashion model who is completely aware that she looks good and that she can have it all, but she injects her character with many insecurities like feeling the need to get back at her mother for reasons so vague, I could not help but wonder if she, too, has the makings of becoming a vindictive and very unhappy adult—a female version of Ben.
I wished, however, that the protagonist is given more time to interact with his girlfriend and ex-wife. Both women have less than three scenes each which is unfortunate because knowing them a bit more is necessary to understand why Ben feels the need to go back to them and, since they have known him for some time, what they saw in him in the first place. His relationship with the two women and how he is with them might have provided us different information compared to when he is with much younger women.
Though Ben has successfully avoided prison for committing fraud, he has allowed himself to become a prisoner of his own age. With some, like Ben’s wife, aging is a freeing experience. But for him, aging is a constant upstream battle and he is deluded enough to think that he can win against time if he tries just a little bit harder.