“Nothing personal,” seems to be Ben Kalmen’s mantra – which is why he can’t seem to understand that people take his actions at more than face value.
In “Solitary Man,” written and directed by the team of Brian Koppelman and David Levien and opening Friday (5/21/10) in limited release, Kalmen is played by Michael Douglas with exactly the kind of roguish charm that Douglas has perfected over the course of his career.
Ben isn’t a ne’er-do-well; rather, he’s a formerly high-flying car dealer, someone whose empire of dealerships made him a minor celebrity, thanks to prevalent TV commercials that pitched him as the king of Long Island car moguls. But as the movie picks up his story, he’s working hard at getting back on his feet.
Ben, you see, had a little problem with fraud that landed him in jail. Now he’s out and trying to work his way back into the business. He’s got a deal percolating that will put him right back in the game – with major money coming from his wife (Mary Louise Parker) and her father, a guy with big bucks and a long reach.
Just one problem: Ben is an irredeemable dog, who can’t resist a come-on from a comely lass. That includes his stepdaughter, who cocks a finger in Ben’s direction during a trip to look at colleges. When he gives in to temptation – which he always does – he reminds her that it’s just our little secret – except that there’s no such thing as a safe secret if more than one person knows it.
What follows are a series of crossroads for Ben – and at each one, Ben makes the easy choice. The tempting choice, as opposed to the tough choice. And, invariably, it’s the wrong choice.
But Ben can’t figure out why things keep going south for him. He’s doing what he always did. It’s just that his little game – that blend of wit, charm and caginess – has worn thin. Or worn itself out. Or worn out the people who used to be amused by it.
That includes his wife, his daughter from his first marriage (played with a touching blend of love and exasperation by Jenna Fischer), his first wife (Susan Sarandon) and just about everyone else in his life. He has burned them all at one point or another, usually more than once. Yet his remorse mostly is about getting caught, not about the pain he has inflicted.
This is a familiar story – except that, in most movies of this type, Ben’s prison sentence would be the climax. He heads off for prison, seeing the error of his ways and vowing to come back a better man. He’s had catharsis or crisis of some kind, having painted himself into a corner from which only a radical change in outlook or lifestyle can extricate him. He emerges chastened, a better man for the drubbing he has been forced to suffer.
But Koppelman and Levien aren’t making a movie about the comic misadventures of a lovable scalawag, who gets himself into trouble and learns amusing life lessons as he straightens up his act. Just the opposite.
Instead, Levien and Koppelman start where those other movies end – with a character emerging from that downfall unchanged – indeed, unable to really change who he is. Ben Kalmen learns nothing from his mistakes. And after everything he’s done, the fact that actions have consequences still seems to come as a surprise to Ben, who somehow still expects to skate by on his charm and good looks. Nothing, in his mind, is his fault.
But “Solitary Man” never lets him off the hook. It’s a daring, downbeat message, one much closer to the truth about this archetype than most movies are willing to admit.
Douglas does some of his best work in recent years as Ben, a guy with a shiny, hard shell. He’s a salesman so he’s used to resistance. But he’s never learned when “No” actually means “No” or how far is too far. He’s one of those guys who would rather apologize later than ask permission first – except that, for the people in his life, those apologies ring hollow because Ben never seems to absorb the lessons he’s expected to learn.
Douglas captures that narcissistic, slightly preening quality, the sense that, really, the world is full of suckers there to help him achieve his ends. He also reveals the perplexed confusion Ben feels when his old tricks stop working because Ben has nothing left to fall back on.
“Solitary Man” is a bitter little film wrapped in witty lines and an upbeat, energetic performance by Douglas. You root for this guy – right up to the point when you realize that he’s going to let you down yet again – just like he does to the people in his life. Hooray for that endangered species: the not-happy ending.