Friday, September 10, 2010

That Douglas Charm: Solitary Man

The timing is unfortunate. It is hard not to feel awkward watching Michael Douglas’ character get bad news from his doctor in the opening scene of Brian Koppelman and David Levien’s Solitary Man (trailer here). However, as movie lovers wish Douglas a swift and full recovery, its recent DVD release serves as a timely reminder of his considerable acting chops.

The six and half years after Ben Kalmen’s doctor told him “I don’t love your EKG,” he has frittered away his marriage and car dealership empire with a series of financial scandals and amorous betrayals. Determined to claw his way back, Kalmen has been romancing Jordan Karsch, the divorced daughter of a highly connected (and we’re talking connected) businessman who can deliver enough board votes to approve a new franchise for the disgraced dealership magnate, provided he keeps his lover happy.

Unfortunately, this includes chaperoning her daughter on her college interview at the exclusive northeastern college whose library bears his name. Of course, the Dean is not as eager to see Kalmen as he once was, but he is not about to burn any bridges either. It is safe to say Kalmen’s campus visit turns out to be quite fateful indeed.

Like most of Jack Nicholson’s recent films, Solitary definitely capitalizes on its lead’s off-screen reputation. However, Douglas is not the least bit schticky as the “fifty-nine year-old” ladies man. Frankly, it is an uncomfortably real performance. At times his Kalmen is repulsively callow, but he maintains an oily charm throughout. As a result, it is vaguely believable divorcees over the age of forty-five would be willing to lower their standards for a night with him.

In truth, co-director Koppelman probably should have run his script through the word processor at least one more time. A number of scenes are repetitive and some continue for a bit too long. However, Solitary features smartly pointed dialogue and a number of very strong performances, most definitely including Douglas. While it might seem gimmicky casting his friend and past co-star Danny DeVito (War of the Roses, Romancing the Stone) as his long lost college buddy Jimmy Merino, he turns in some very fine supporting work.

Frankly, Solitary is best when Kalmen is back on the prowl on his college campus. While, his scenes with DeVito are easily the best of the film, Douglas also shares some nice easy-going chemistry with Jesse Eisenberg as Cheston, a sophomore he sort of takes under his wing. Olivia Thirlby also scores as Cheston’s girlfriend Maureen, who finally tells Kalmen what some woman should have said to him years ago. By contrast, Kalmen’s drama with the Karsches is rather unremarkable in comparison. Still, frequent Stephen Soderbergh collaborators (who co-produced) Koppelman and Levien deserve credit for never sugarcoating Kalmen’s caddish nature. They present a man resolved to hash up his life, which he duly does, in spades.

Solitary was unfairly overlooked during its theatrical release, perhaps because it was one of a spate of somewhat comedic indie dramas with “Man” in their title following a single adjective, such as Paper Man, The Single Man, and the thoroughly forgettable The Extra Man. Solitary is definitely one of the better men. A welcomed showcase for Douglas (after all, how un-psyched are you for the Wall Street sequel?), its shrewd use of Johnny Cash’s cover of the title Neil Diamond song should also generate a few i-tunes downloads. Now available on DVD, Solitary is the sort of small, quality film worth catching up with through Netlix.