Review: Michael Douglas' Brilliance Can't Save 'Solitary Man'
by Jeremy Kirk
June 14, 2010
No man is an island, able to walk through life without any connection with those around him. If ever a man did exist, he would more than likely resemble Michael Douglas. Suave, cool and handsome, he would bear a particular likeness to Ben Kalmen, Douglas' character in the new film Solitary Man. Written by Brian Koppelman and directed by Koppelman & David Levien, Solitary Man tells a story of how one moment in Kalmen's life can lead to a Domino effect of events that whittle away all he has. While Douglas is picture-perfect bringing Kalmen to a rather realistic forefront, the film itself is disjointed. Just as Kalmen never makes a real connection in his life (that is by choice), the film can never make an honest connection with its audience. In the end, the solitary man at the center of the story, well-paced and evenly written as much of it is, is truly left all alone.
This major problem in the film begins right from the start. It opens with Kalmen in a doctor's office. Amidst banter about golf and business, the doctor drops a bombshell on our protagonist, a piece of news that literally causes the sound to drown out from Kalmen's world. It isn't the scene itself that is the problem. It's that it comes so early, and, after this, we jump more than six years ahead after Kalmen has severed most serious ties. He still has something of a connection with his daughter, played by Jenna Fischer, and grandson, but he has divorced his wife, played by Susan Sarandon, and endeavored in some shady business dealings leaving his professional life on the rocks.
The self-destruction doesn't end there, either. The first part of Solitary Man follows Kalmen as he takes his new girlfriend's daughter, played by Imogen Poots, to a college campus. Kalmen is an alumnus, and the money he has donated to the school has put his name on the new library. He has some pull, but that is all about to go away. While at the college, something happens, something that, to me, anyway, was a genuine shock. I won't give it away, but it is the catalyst for the events for the rest of the film. And it is this event that drives the final wedge between the people, both business and personal, that remained in Kalmen's life and the character himself. It also drives an emotional wedge between the character and the audience, something that no amount of reflection from the character himself can mend.
What, ultimately, comes closest to saving our connection with the character, and the film as a whole, really, is Douglas himself. The rest of the cast plays catch-up well with their spectacular lead. Moments that seem to be going in predictable directions are helped by top-notch performances from people like Sarandon and Jesse Eisenberg as a college student who Kalmen seems to take under his wing for a time. Danny DeVito is steadfast as a friend from college who still takes Kalmen in when the rest of the world has shunned him.
But Douglas, present in every scene, is the driving force of Solitary Man, and it is his performance that very nearly reconnects you, allows you to almost feel sorry for this man who has self destructed the life he once had. Those moments of reflection, connection or not, feel genuine. Michael Douglas is in iconic form here, and maybe this is Solitary Man's biggest setback. Douglas is so convincing, so honed in on who Ben Kalmen is, that we never seem to get a sense of who he was. We've only seen the collision course he's currently on. We aren't ever privy to the smooth pavement he traveled before that opening scene. More would have helped, a notion that is often the exception to the rule, but there just isn't enough in Solitary Man to give us the clear picture. Even when redemption seems fully within grasp, the island we see is still just an island, and the ocean surrounding him is one he filled all on his own.
Jeremy's Rating: 5.5 out of 10