Billy Gray

Solitary Man

In Movie Reviews on June 23, 2010 at 4:50 pm

What is it about Jesse Eisenberg that attracts exactly the wrong kind of movie mentor? First came his character’s lecherous uncle Roger (Campbell Scott) in Roger Dodger, who taught his teen nephew about love by depositing him in a basement whorehouse. Now, in writer-director Brian Koppelman’s Solitary Man, Eisenberg plays Daniel Cheston, a dweeb undergrad who falls under the broken wing of Ben Kalmen (Michael Douglas), a grayer tutor than Roger who is only interested in getting Dan laid so he can swipe the unlucky girl.

Ben is even more pathetic than Roger thanks to advanced age that makes smarmy, horned up narcissism grotesque rather than impishly charming. The role is a triumph for Douglas, who inhabits the deeply unlikable character without repulsing the audience or eking out 11th Hour sentimentality that would elicit undeserved pity. Ben is an arch subversion of the strapping younger man Douglas defined in his tawdry blockbuster phase: affluent, selfish, promiscuous and strutting blindly along the edge of a cliff.

Only Ben is post-crash. You look at him, a used car salesman—it’s not as ham-handed a career-as-soul metaphor as it seems—sifting through the personal (divorce, estranged children, a weak ticker) and professional (a Ponzi-ish scandal) wreckage of his late middle age and can imagine, if not hope for, any number of Douglas’s slick ‘80s-era philanderers—maybe even Gordon Gekko—meeting the same fate.

The cliché goes that behind every great man is a great woman. Its corollary must be that great women stay behind and put up with even the most middling members of the less fair sex. Because try as Ben might to repel anyone close to him, a constellation of sharp and affable female characters stay in his orbit. There’s his exceedingly forgiving daughter Susan (Jenna Fischer); his tart girlfriend Jordan (Mary-Louise Parker, given some biting verbal lashings by Koppleman that she handles with almost disconcerting aplomb); Jordan’s precocious but miserable daughter Allyson (Imogen Poots, nailing  a Manhattan teenager whose insolence is just a cover for insecurity); and Nancy (Susan Sarandon), his sassy but caring and loyal-to-a-fault ex-wife.

Then there’s Daniel, who Ben is bored enough to mess with but not sufficiently interested in to corrupt, and Jimmy (Danny DeVito), Ben’s old college friend and the most likely candidate to rehabilitate him. But these characters rarely intersect and the actors mostly go mano a mano with Douglas, who gamely holds the whole thing together.

Solitary Man is clearly an actor’s movie. And not a single performer comes up short, including Olivia Thirlby. Thirlby plays Daniel’s girlfriend who Ben tries to snatch. It’s a small, uncredited role that paradoxically screams for the soulful, charismatic actress to get her own star vehicle.

Beyond the first-rate cast, skillful cinematographer Alwin Kuchler evokes Solitary Man’s varied settings, from chic Manhattan to rusty college town to barren suburban car lots with a bleached palette befitting the weary protagonist.

Koppelman’s script avoids easy clichés and laughs. Ben and Daniel’s father-son dynamic, for instance, only bookends the movie rather than consumes the middle. And Nancy plays a divorcee who is neither bitter and desperate nor haughtily removed. Only a dues ex machina in the form of a gangster thug who literally knocks some sense into Ben strikes a false chord in the otherwise restrained script.

Ben’s salvation can’t come from on high. He’s got to hit rock bottom.

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