Thursday, July 1, 2010

Solitary Man: No comfort for old salesmen

The title is ironic, though the movie itself at times seems to be not entirely aware of this, nonsensically launching its opening credit sequence with Johnny Cash’s rendition of the titular Neil Diamond ditty about a young man’s unease with cheating women, which is rather the opposite of what’s going on here. Six years after the mere mention of a potential heart problem prompted a late mid-life crisis and a catastrophic and very public personal meltdown, career car peddler Ben Kalmen (Michael Douglas) seems capable of just about anything other than being alone. He may have split from his wife Nancy (Susan Sarandon in a pretty thankless supporting role), but most nights he’s on the prowl for fresh flesh, preferably under 40, which according to Ben is the threshold beyond which the body “thickens.”

Not only do women support the sating of Ben’s carnal desires, or more to the point, his self-esteem, they also supply him with important business contacts—Ben’s heavily reliant on nepotism since being arrested for fraud. See, the problem isn’t so much that Ben has sex with the barely legal daughter (Imogen Poots, very good) of his rich girlfriend Jordan (Mary-Louise Parker), but that he was going out with the rich girlfriend in the first place. Jordan is only the most luscious embodiment—thickened or no—of Ben’s desperate cynicism in action. He’s using her, shamelessly. When push comes to shove comes to shit-kicking, which it will once that daughterly dalliance comes to light, it appears Ben will give up or sell-out just about anybody, including his adoring grandson, the subject of some emotional blackmail undertaken by Ben’s daughter, Susan (Jenna Fischer).

Solitary Man, which opens in Toronto tomorrow, was co-directed by journeyman scenarists Brian Koppelman and David Levien, who previously collaborated in this same capacity for 2001’s Knockaround Guys. I vaguely remember feeling some sympathy for that earlier picture despite its finally rather hackneyed ensemble crime caper premise, and that more or less lines up with my response to Solitary Man. I found myself rooting for the movie right to the end, enjoying certain audacious twists and its willingness to let its hero sink pretty low while ostensibly en route to redemption, and Douglas gives a beautifully modulated, unapologetic, and detailed performance. But Ben seems oblivious, his mind made up about what mercenary tactics one must engage in to succeed in life, which results in some fun, pretty crude, and not devoid of truth life lessons offered by Ben to gawky college sophomore Dan (Jesse Eisenberg). I think what ultimately makes Solitary Man less than satisfying is that it strives to embrace the virtues of friendship, family, and solidarity, yet, even in Nancy’s eleventh-hour offer of rescue from still greater disaster, the whole movie, like Ben, remains fundamentally solipsistic. Not a single character besides Ben emerges as anything more than a functionary.

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