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Solitary Man
Savant Blu-ray Review

Solitary Man
Anchor Bay
2010 / Color / 2:35 widescreen / 90 min. / Street Date September 7, 2010 / 39.99
Starring Michael Douglas, Susan Sarandon, Danny DeVito, Mary-Louise Parker, Jenna Fischer, Imogen Poots, Jesse Eisenberg, Olivia Thirlby, David Costabile, Anastasia Griffith.
Alwin Kuchler
Film Editor Tricia Cooke
Original Music Michael Penn
Written by Brian Koppelman
Produced by Donna Golomb, Heidi Jo Markel, Paul Schiff, Steve Soderbergh
Directed by Brian Koppelman, David Levien

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

Solitary Man is a slick, well-made movie about a totally reprehensible guy. Michael Douglas is both charming and loathsome as a man nearing sixty who has burned too many bridges behind him. He's now in the process of alienating the last five people in his life who will have anything to do with him. Just when we might think that Ben Kalman is redeemable, the film shifts the blame for his considerable social crime just enough to offer the character a loophole. I'm not sure that this isn't an evasion. The script by co-director Brian Koppelman arrays a splendid cast of characters around Douglas -- ex- business friends, an ex-wife and a series of girlfriends and casual lovers, most of whom are so fed up with his tricks that they'd happily see him fry in deep fat. Not a lot of new movies are serious enough to tackle such a screwed-up character, which makes Solitary Man immediately interesting. Yet, even under the main titles, a Johnny Cash cover of the Neil Diamond song is already positioning Michael Douglas's Ben Kalman as a special exception.

Ben Kalman's life went totally to seed six years ago when he ditched his wife Nancy (Susan Sarandon) under the rationale that he was incapable of being faithful to her. A serial womanizer, Kalman picked up girls as regularly as he sold cars -- he was the celebrity owner of numerous BMW dealerships and starred in his own TV commercials, etc. All that ended when he got caught in a major fraud sting, stealing from the company, falsifying records, etc. Barely escaping jail time, Ben has soldiered on in a diminished capacity, and is desperately trying to re-boot himself as a single-lot dealer. The company is nearing a decision that may give him a break and let him start again.

That's when Ben seriously double-crosses his new Park Avenue girlfriend Jordon Karsch (Mary-Louise Parker). On a college visit with Jordon's daughter Allyson (Imogen Poots), Ben lets things get out of hand, quickly changing his situation from hopeful to impossible. He then trashes his tenuous relationship with his grown daughter Susan (Jenna Fischer) by thoughtlessly sleeping with one of her friends, Carol Salomonde (Anastasia Griffith). All bu run out of town on a rail, Ben has little choice but to return to the college town and beg for a menial job working for an old friend, deli owner Jimmy Merino (Danny DeVito). But the wrath of the wronged doesn't stop there: Allyson is attending the college, and her mother Jordon has the connections to insure that Ben is forced to leave there as well.

Solitary Man reminds me of the damned 'heroes' of stories like Conrad's Outcast of the Islands (made into a good, seldom-seen Carol Reed film) and Jules Dassin's Night and the City. Ben Kalman is one of those guys seemingly hell-bent on making himself unwelcome in circle after circle of society, starting with his family and proceeding to his business associates and his friends. He wants power and all that comes with it, and is desperate not to lose the thrill of "being that guy who energizes every room he walks into". Naturally Ben thinks he's God's gift to womankind, and even at his age has retained the sales-lot knack of attracting members of the opposite sex. But the kinds of success Ben has enjoyed have turned him into his own worst enemy. He committed irrational, stupid crimes with his car lots, jeopardizing a going concern and turning himself into a pariah in the only business he knows. The self destructive fool in Outcast of the Islands and the terminally ambitious Harry Fabian in Night and the City screw up in the exact same way, by betraying those that trust them, have confidence in them, and love them.

When we meet Ben Kalman he's already near the end of his rope, stuck in a predicament his ego refuses to acknowledge. He juggles his steady girlfriend in her high-rent apartment with a series of quickie conquests. He misses key appointments for his grandson's birthday, with the result that his daughter is on the verge of banning him from the family. And that's before Ben blows any hope for his fiscal and social recovery by recklessly alienating somebody in a position to make him completely persona non grata. Solitary Man isn't a crime film, but when Ben crosses Jordon, he's figuratively cuts his own throat.

Portrayed by a gallery of beautiful, intelligent women, the flames in Ben's life turn on him sooner than later, and with full justification. Susan Sarandon is understanding but firm as the ex-wife. When Ben agrees that her old couch is still comfortable, she pointedly states that she knows better than to dump things that are still working. One-nights like Anastasia Griffith slip giddily into his bed, but in the morning are horrified to realize what they've done. Ben foolishly thinks that his "no-one needs to know" speeches will insure that his affairs will remain private. While visiting the old college campus, he responds to the cocky Allyson's youthful barbs by asserting himself as if he were a hasty 19 year-old. Ben gets in a fistfight with a college clod, and takes it upon himself to coach the nice young Daniel (Jesse Eisenberg) on how to come on to the girls.

Ben steps over the line when he begins advising his girlfriend's daughter about her sex life. An active young player, Allyson responds to Ben's line about "what she gets" out of sex dates with young dolts, with the implied message being that an experienced cocksman like himself could really make things special. So goes the way of all flesh.

A blue dialogue line in Alan Sharp's superb script for Night Moves describes Ben Kalman to a tee: he'd f___ a woodpile on the chance there was a snake in it. The problem is that Ben's slick tricks don't impress people the way they once did. Not only is he too old, his legal debacle doesn't exactly make him role model material. A typical "mind over matter" guy, Ben refuses to see things for what they are and is convinced he'll soon have it all back.

He instead finds himself on a Chute instead of a Ladder. The main character in Joseph Conrad's adventure story is frustrated when he's repeatedly banished from decent society, and is driven away from the city, away from the farthest outposts of civilization. He ends up marooned in a savage village, and high on the local chief's s___ list. The noirish Harry Fabian of Night and the City double-crosses one too many associates, and makes himself the target of every spiv and killer in London. Our Ben Kalman is booted out of his family, forced to flee the city in the wake of his girlfriend's wrath, and ends up making milkshakes for a bunch of freshmen and sophomores. But even there he gets his hormones in a spin and makes a play for Maureen (the bright Olivia Thirlby, unaccountably uncredited), the sweetheart of one of the last true friends he's got.

Solitary Man is sufficiently thoughtful to merit a virgin viewing, so I'm going to have to express my misgivings about its last act without spoiling anything. The movie stops short of an ending that says "all's forgiven", but the life preserver it throws Ben Kalman is something of a cheat. Ben is given the benefit of the doubt by a "twinkie defense" that ignores who basically he is, and the success-oriented America he comes from. Having to work a prole job in the deli is an unthinkable defeat for Ben, because he's part of a class accustomed to living high. For Ben, morals are for squares, and only when he's ostracized does he begin to accept the notion that his daily privileges are anything less than a birthright. Because the movie charts Ben's personal pain and unhappiness, it can't help but reinforce the notion that he is a victim, and not a villain. "He didn't mean to hurt anybody", we might think. "And those bankers and car executives are cold and unforgiving."

That's total BS on its face, and the reason that Solitary Man needs deeper scrutiny. First off, the show demonstrates that monetary resources enhance one's life options. Major among those options is the ability to shut out things one doesn't like, such as horrible people. Gated communities, for example. Jordon Karsch, after being outraged by the boyfriend she loves, doesn't have to back away. She borrows the might of her industrialist father, a man shown to be connected to thugs like ex-cop Nascarella. Powerful men like Karsh can easily reach out and squash troublemakers in their path. Solitary Man presents a psychological "excuse" for Ben's behavior, but anybody can see that Ben's personal wealth is much more responsible for his craziness. The movie ignores the economic equation of hubris and success.

But the personal evasion in Solitary Man is even simpler than that. It seems that every publicly visible person nowadays is prepared to take verbal responsibility for their crimes, because they're convinced that they can sidestep any real consequences. But every once in a while a guy like Ben truly "screws the pooch" -- i.e., commits a no-no for which forgiveness is not an option. Ben does this at least twice. He foolishly expects the BMW people to give him a second chance. He's so immature that he even hopes for a continued relationship with Allyson. For crying out loud, The Graduate was a farce, already. Solitary Man ends with a lifeline of mercy being thrown to Ben, and makes its big suspense point the question whether or not he's learned his lesson. That really seems to be the wrong question, as we've already seen that Ben is incapable of upholding any promise; he doesn't know how to learn lessons.

Solitary Man is very nicely directed and its smooth, natural script handles a number of touchy scenes exceedingly well. We squirm when a bank rep lowers the boom on Ben, and gets insulted for his trouble. We can see disaster looming when the Aarp-age Ben puts on a new shirt in a college dorm and immediately starts acting like a campus operator with the girls. Michael Douglas does wonders with a guy written as a total sleaze ... and attracts our sympathy. Danny DeVito and Susan Sarandon put in fairly brief character turns, but hit all the right notes. Because they see something of value hidden somewhere inside Ben Kalman, we'll give him all the breaks we can. But take him back? That's a stretch.  2

Anchor Bay is both producing and distributing pictures now, and their Blu-ray of Solitary Man is a classy production given a quality disc release. The transfer is immaculate; I can't imagine it looking better on a large screen, except in a perfectly tuned screening situation.

The audio commentary features writer/co-director Brian Koppelman, director David Levien and actor Douglas McGrath, who has a small role in the film as the Dean of Ben Kalman's college. The featurette Solitary Man is a formula EPK item concentrating on Michael Douglas's impressive performance, which may garner attention come Oscars time.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, Solitary Man Blu-ray rates:
Movie: Very Good
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: commentary, EPK-style featurette
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: August 4, 2010


 1 1. To be fair, the script does show that Ben's crooked finances did serious harm to people -- the brother of a school security guard got burned on one of Ben's thieving car schemes. But we mostly see Ben's pain, not that of his victims.

2. I wasn't charmed by the reason Danny DeVito's character gives for staying faithful to his wife ... that everybody else's spouse would become unattractive soon enough too, so why make a big deal of looks when one gets married? I suppose that that POV makes an effective contrast with Ben's hundreds of conquests, but it wrongly suggests that ordinary people are miserable losers.

Hey, the oddest movies can supply inspiring life lessons. I saw the musical Damn Yankees innumerable times as a kid, and what eventually got me the most was the scene where Joe Boyd (Robert Shafer) returns to his wife Meg (Shannon Bolin) and begs her to take him back: "If you'll have me!" On maybe the 20th viewing the tensions in this reunion finally jumped out in relief. Boyd deserted her ("left her flat") with barely a note for a farewell. He's a nice enough guy, and loyal to her "in his way" but he only returns when disaster looms and his soul is in jeopardy. And Meg takes him back. Therefore, I learned that: a) a Good Woman's price is greater than rubies. b) if I was ever going to find security and be happy, I'd have to make my miserable flawed presence worth something to my mate, whoever that might be. So far, my personal scheme has worked.

DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2010 Glenn Erickson

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