By Don Simpson | June 18, 2010
Directors: Brian Koppelman, David Levien
Writer: Brian Koppelman
Starring: Michael Douglas, Jenna Fischer, Jesse Eisenberg, Mary-Louise Parker, Susan Sarandon, Danny Devito
In April 1966, Neil Diamond released his debut single titled “Solitary Man.” First-time directors Brian Koppelman and David Levien open Solitary Man with Johnny Cash’s cover (released in October 2000 on American III: Solitary Man) of Diamond’s classic song. While the song is about the many women who have cheated on the male narrator leaving him all alone hoping for a girl who will remain faithful and stay with him (“Don’t know that I will / But until I can find me / The girl who’ll stay / And won’t play games behind me / I’ll be what I am / A solitary man / Solitary man”), the lead character of Solitary Man – Ben Kalmen (Michael Douglas) – is the one doing all of the cheating as he leaves a trail of scorned women in his wake.
Ben was once one of the Eastern Seaboard’s most successful car dealers, but a fateful visit to the doctor quickly changes all of that. (This doctor’s office is where Solitary Man opts to begin.) Ben’s doctor merely suggests that he wants to do some further tests, but we flash forward six years to discover that Ben has since been sent into a psychological tailspin. The once wildly successful businessman and loving family man is now divorced from his wife Nancy (Susan Sarandon) and financially ruined after being indicted and severely fined for fraud. What happened? Well, considering that Solitary Man opens with Ben’s visit to the doctor’s office six years prior that seems to suggest that was the event which set him off. (At the close of the film the reasoning is very carefully and purposefully explained to us by Ben, as if the audience is a bunch of confused kindergarteners.)
The only thing Ben has going for him nowadays is his knack for bedding significantly younger and beautiful women. One of his current lady-friends, Jordon (Mary-Louise Parker), is not as young as some of his conquests (Jordon is close to half his age) but she entices him with enough income and influence to rekindle Ben’s career therefore warranting his faux affection. Ben just needs to do one small favor for Jordon before he can break ground on his car dealership – escort her 18-year old daughter Allyson (Imogen Poots) to an important college interview at Ben’s alma mater (the college’s library is named after him). Unfortunately for Ben, he does all of his thinking with his wrong head – wink, wink, nudge, nudge – and his head ventures into morally questionable terrain even for Ben (though the dastardly deed is quite predictable, I will refrain from divulging the spoiler). If Ben thought his life was in shambles before this weekend, well…it only goes downhill from there.
Though I thoroughly enjoyed Douglas’ performance (arguably his best since Wonder Boys), I found several aspects of Ben that were quite unbelievable. First of all, I found it hard to comprehend that Ben was as bad off financially as the film purported him to be. I understand that he was in denial and wanted to keep up appearances, but would Ben really continue to mooch off of his daughter and ex-wife just so that he could continue to roll around in his Mercedes Benz? If you want me to believe that this guy has hit rock bottom then take away his freagin’ Mercedes!
Secondly, please explain to me what Ben has done for his ex-wife that has convinced her to want to continue to help him? It seems strange to me that Nancy doesn’t even seem to care that Ben is sleeping with a different 20-something or 30-something every night – in fact she seems endlessly entertained by his shameless shenanigans. So…completely out of the blue your faithful and loving husband starts cheating on you with mere girls – and you still want to be around him, let alone help him? Ben’s daughter (Jenna Fischer) is the only character who seems to have a realistically repulsed reaction to her father’s titillating tomfoolery.
Thirdly, I find it utterly unfathomable that countless 20-somethings or 30-somethings – especially his unspeakable conquest – would shag Ben just because he reeks of confidence and experience. (I also can’t fathom how a man as devastated as Ben at this point in his life can continue to muster the confidence around the ladies that he does.) Admittedly, I have issues with several Hollywood depictions of older men sleeping with significantly younger women. There is something about the characters and their chemistry (or lack thereof) that never seems to sit right with me; the older male characters always seem to be mere male fantasies of what the male screenwriter and/or director is hoping he’ll be doing when he’s over 60.
Lastly, would Jordon really allow Ben to be alone with her 18-year old daughter for an entire weekend knowing that Ben has a penchant for young ladies? Why tempt Ben with your own daughter? Why? Why? Why?
What Solitary Man does extremely well – though not very realistically – is show how Ben substitutes his health and career with the purely carnal indulgence of sex. Convinced that he is going to die soon, Ben proceeds to steal and fuck his way to heaven’s pearly white gates; but Ben is attempting to claim his 72 virgins before he reaches paradise.
Koppelman and Levien have co-written two Steven Soderbergh films (The Girlfriend Experience and Oceans Thirteen); in turn, Soderbergh co-produced Solitary Man. Unfortunately, it doesn’t seem as though Soderbergh – who in my humble opinion has impeccable cinematic taste and judgment – was involved enough in this production. With some experienced guidance – or in the hands of a different director altogether (Solitary Man would have been a perfect script for a director such as Noah Baumbach or Todd Field) – to portray the scenes and relationships more realistically, Solitary Man could have been a great film. Not to be confused with the far superior character studies of A Single Man or A Serious Man, Solitary Man left me feeling like one of Ben’s 20-something conquests…shamefully manipulated and disappointed.