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Review: Douglas plumbs depths of 'Solitary Man'

| Thursday, July 1, 2010

You know the drill in a typical movie: Things go wrong for a selfish man, he hits bottom, sees the light and the rest of the film is spent with his stirring return to good-guy status.

But what if there were no bottom• What if there were endless mistakes to make, some of them spectacular, and the resurrection of the character was put off till the last minute, if it occurred at all• If that sounds like an intriguing notion, well, it is, and "Solitary Man" proves it. Even better, it's bolstered by a terrific performance from Michael Douglas, his best in years, as a disgraced car salesman who can't, or won't, stop his downward spiral. Such is the strength of Douglas' performance that we don't even care. He's just so much fun to watch. Add a really good supporting cast that is uniformly outstanding — though they really are supporting here; it's Douglas' movie — and you've got a fine movie.

The film opens with Ben Kalmen (Douglas) getting a checkup at his doctor's office. He's such a salesman he can't help schmoozing with the physician. But there's a worry in one of the tests, an irregularity with Ben's heart that could be serious. He should get it checked out.

Cut to six years later. Ben is ruined, or getting there, having participated in a stupid scam and cheated his way out of marriage to his sensible, loving wife, Nancy (Susan Sarandon). He's lost his fortune and his relative fame (he was on the cover of Forbes), though not his touch with younger, vulnerable women. He still sees his daughter, Susan (Jenna Fischer), and his grandson Scotty (Jake Siciliano). But Susan's husband Gary (David Costabile) is onto him. Actually, so is Susan, but she feels sorry for him and, well, he is her father. But everyone has limits.

Jordan Karsch (Mary-Louise Parker), Ben's girlfriend, has hers, reaching them after Ben exercises monumentally poor judgment involving her teenage daughter (Imogen Poots). Out of options, Ben lands back in his college town (where a building is named after him, thanks to a donation back in his salad days, but he's more interested, even at his age, in the keg parties). Old friend Jimmy (Danny DeVito), with whom Ben hasn't spoken since college, is exceptionally gracious, a warm man who doesn't judge, whether his friends are riding high or sinking low.

Ben's in the latter category. He befriends a shy student (Jesse Eisenberg), perhaps seeking the chance to serve as a mentor of sorts. But in Ben's world, there is only one person who really counts: Ben. He's selfish, self-centered and a heel to everyone he comes into contact with.

And yet. ...Douglas treads a careful line, in that he (and directors Brian Koppelman and David Levien) don't make Ben sympathetic, exactly — he's too boorish for that. But Douglas allows the salesman to shine through a bit, still, even in disgrace. The disarming smile, the smack on the shoulder — it's all as insincere as the promises he makes. But Ben, and what we really mean here is Douglas, won't be ignored. Douglas excels at this kind of role.

You don't root for Ben, certainly. But you do wish that he could maybe turn things around, stop the slide a little. If not that, you'll happily settle for simply sitting back and watching.

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