Solitary Man is one of those great character studies with a central performance you can’t imagine anyone else playing the part. In this case Michael Douglass plays Ben Kalmen, a man who used to be a successful car salesman.
The way this character is introduced is incredibly refreshing. It begins with a flashback where Ben is seeing a doctor. He receives some distressing health news and suddenly we’re in present day and we see Ben go about his day. I was overjoyed there wasn’t an unbearable exposition scene where we figure out what has happened in the past six and a half years. Instead the film takes its time and allows us to invest with the character and actually ask the questions before the answer is shoved down our throats.
Since that is handled so well, I shall avoid saying what happened even though it is not incredibly spoiling. The life he leads now is very relaxed. He wakes up without an alarm clock and he visits people in his life. He has his girlfriend (Mary Louise Parker) who is used just for her family’s contacts. He has his daughter (Jenna Fischer) and her son (Jake Sicilano) who are starting to become more and more intolerant of his flaws.
He agrees to do a favor for his girlfriend in order to get a new business deal to go through. He will take her daughter, Allyson (Imogen Poots), to his old school in Boston for her college interview. There is where the film really starts becoming interesting because Ben is in a position where he thinks he ought to impart his romantic and life wisdom on the younger generation. His philosophies, like most of his personalities, may be crude but they are always fascinating and revealing.
Ben is a man in his 60s who wants to be in his 20s. He doesn’t experience the zany midlife crises we’ve seen, but instead a sad journey of learning this is not his world to conquer anymore. His mistakes have massive ramifications and the film is not in any rush to redeem him. It is such a great screenplay by Brian Koppleman that balances sympathy towards the character and judgment. Ben is in every scene of the film and it is never once exhausting to be with him for all this time.
Douglas is pitch-perfect in his role because it seems so reflective. In many ways, Ben is what happens when the typical Michael Douglas character grows up. It’s almost a punchline that Douglas only signs on to a film if he gets to wear a suit and throughout Solitary Man he slowly has to shed the suit persona and try towards something new.
This is especially seen in some of the great exchanges between Douglas and Danny DeVito, who plays a friend of Ben’s who he hasn’t seen in 30 years. The scenes are very strong on paper, but these specific actors bring something else to it. I don’t know much about Hollywood gossip, but I know these two are long friends stretching back from when Douglas produced One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. That public information adds even more weight to their scenes together. These are the scenes I liked most of all because Ben’s friendships are a paradox; it makes sense that he has these connections, but it’s remarkable he has friends at the same time.
As the plot develops, it is expected to go in a certain direction because that’s where all character study films go. At one point, it seems that we are at that point when Ben is going to have his epiphany, but the film always stays in a believable flow that is more interested in how the characters would actually react over how they need to react in order to get to the end.