It's possible that Michael Douglas is merely acting in "Solitary Man," playing a womanizing smooth-talker facing his dire twilight years while the world seems to get younger and younger, perhaps out of spite. What clicks perfectly in the film is the underlying reality of Douglas's performance, which shouldn't be viewed as biographical, but let's just say that I'm sure he found sections of the script uncomfortable. It's a superb performance in a substantial drama of self-destruction, playing brilliantly off Douglas's bumpy life experience.
Ben Kalmen (Michael Douglas) is a man of 60, but is trying to avoid the encroaching reality of aging through a steady streak of young lovers, while angling to put his professional life back together after a dark period of fraud. Ignoring a health issue and dealing with a troubled relationship with his daughter (Jenna Fischer), Ben is near rock bottom, with his place in hell confirmed through a seduction of his girlfriend's daughter (Imogen Poots). Facing financial calamity, Ben retreats to the college town of his youth, seeking solace in the company of old friend Jimmy (Danny DeVito) as he sorts out his nagging troubles.
Despite marketing that wants to paint "Solitary Man" as a lighthearted adventure surveying a rascally middle-aged man refusing to sever his boyish roots, the picture is a more severe affair, marked by a harsh emotional truth that's cleanly painted onto every scene. Written by Brian Koppelman and directed by Kopplemen and David Levien ("Knockaround Guys"), "Solitary Man" retains a roguish wit with Ben's glad-handing personality and business exaggeration, but the underlying nature of the film is a penetrative shot of reality, communicating the wandering appetites of a man who assumes he's been handed a death sentence.
Ben's a delightfully complex, interior character of habit, scripted outstandingly as a compulsive machine of disgrace. The directors like to hold Ben's feet to the fire, dropping the character into a series of confrontations to chart his offenses, along with his instincts to dodge responsibility whenever possible. While it's not a joy to watch Ben purposely deface his character, the pathology of the man is hypnotic, blessed with a script that's honest with reaction to such a repellent, yet strangely charming fellow. Ben's a creep, but he has these enchanting dimensions that flesh out his flamethrower attitude past basic explanations of emotional pain. The character is wounded, certainly, but he's also addicted to the game of seduction, refusing to allow his age to dictate his bedroom demands. The girls keep him young, the thrill of reinvention keeps him young, but the bigger picture of maturity continues to thrash his comfort. It's an exceptional screenplay.
Michael Douglas handles the role like the maestro he is, deftly weaving together equal helpings of poison and marquee personality into Ben that keeps all eyes on the screen. If there wasn't already a "Wall Street" sequel coming out this year, I would label Ben Kalmen as the natural extension of Gordon Gekko's silver years, emerging from a professional humiliation raring to jump back into fray, only to find his peers and loved ones have grown tired of the deception. Douglas captures the glint as well as the gloom, infusing Ben with a toxic mischief that constantly derails his friendships (Jesse Eisenberg plays a college-aged student of Ben's lothario wisdom), yet is strangely soothing to his troubled soul. I adored the actor's work here. Even better are Douglas's scenes with pal DeVito, which drip with a type of actorly ease only these guys could conjure. Frankly, I could watch an entire film of these two shootin' the breeze, but there's a story that needs attention.
The VC-1 encoded image (2.35:1 aspect ratio) presentation for "Solitary Man" is generally above par, with a beautiful read on the autumnal feel of the cinematography, encouraging vivid colors during outdoor sequences, while interiors retain their natural warmth without any noticeable bleeding. Detail feels a little pulled out, but it's never bothersome, with close-ups showing off facial textures to a pleasing degree. Shadow detail is healthy for fabrics and evening sequences, preserving needed information. It's a softly shot picture, but the BD holds tight to the emotion of the feature.
The 5.1 PCM track has a nice city feel for most of the feature film, with solid urban atmospherics that help to bring a welcome dimensionality to the mix. Dialogue is very clean and frontal, but blended well into the aural scheme of things. Surrounds are active with collegiate business and club visits, with a few of the soundtrack selections offering a strong low-end, giving the whole enterprise a comfortable weight. Purposeful sound design work is also pronounced, allowing the listener another level of storytelling. A 5.1 track is also available.
English SDH and Spanish subtitles are offered.
The feature-length audio commentary with filmmakers Brian Koppleman and David Levien, and actor Douglas McGrath is a must-do for any fan of the film, with the trio humorously and candidly walking through the feature film scene by scene, sharing their thoughts and memories on the making of the film. McGrath is here to ask questions, which helps the directors immensely, pushing them to chat up frame minutiae, while taking off on a few tangents that explore the social aspects of the shoot. It's a lovely, informative track, with some of the best stuff reserved for New York City filmmaking cheats, stories about famous directors who came in to help with the editing process, and a revelation that Brett Ratner pays cinematographer Dante Spinotti out of his own pocket. Who knew? A superb commentary track.
"'Solitary Man:' Alone in a Crowd" (11:46) is a straightforward promotional featurette, offering interviews with cast and crew that explore character motivation and provide plenty of Michael Douglas reverence (all deserved).
And a Theatrical Trailer is included.
"Solitary Man" doesn't provide easy answers in the end, and perhaps the conclusion, while perfectly realized, doesn't send the viewer off with the type of catharsis necessary to digest the entire film. It leaves a few emotional threads dangling on purpose, but the overall concept of the picture remains in a potent position, directly hitting viewers with a portrait of a man refusing to take the end of his life lying down, unless it's in the company of a woman, preferably blonde and easily charmed.