In the opening scene of Solitary Man, Michael Douglas stands in his doctor’s office, waiting for the prognosis of his EKG. Appropriately dressed in a bland, Used Car Salesman’s suit, Douglas presents his character as a nice, affable man. Cut to black. Cue the title card: Six and a half years later. Fade in on Douglas getting out of bed in his hot-shit apartment, getting dressed and hitting the streets. As Douglas struts down New York City, dressed like a midnight cowboy in a designer black suit, each step perfectly in synch with the beat of Johnny Cash’s “Solitary Man,” I had an epiphany: the Michael Douglas we love is back, baby. I dare you not to be charmed.
In Solitary Man, Douglas plays Ben Kalmen, a once-successful used car salesman in New York who, after learning about his troubling EKG, left is wife, corrupted his business, and has yet to go back to the doctor. Now he spends his days chasing far younger women, forgetting his grandson’s birthday parties and trying to convince everyone his business is now legit.
Describing plot any further will get us nowhere. Let’s focus our attention elsewhere. Do me a favor and think about this notion: what 65-year-old actor could possibly convince you that bedding his 18-year-old girlfriend’s daughter is not tasteless? The answer: Michael Douglas. Are we a bit shocked when we see the two making out? Of course. But are we repulsed? No way. That’s the brilliance of Douglas’s performance: this is a vile man, way beyond any form of redemption, yet we want to follow him.
Often times, a film relies solely on its lead performance to carry the entire movie (i.e. Crazy Heart). Such is not the case here.
Douglas is backed by such high talents as Mary-Louise Parker (who steals scenes as Douglas’s girlfriend, convincingly going blow-for-blow with each line of sharply-written dialogue), Jenna Fischer (miles away from her Office character as Douglas’s remorseless daughter), Susan Sarandon (who, as Douglas’s ex, proves she simply cannot deliver a poor acting performance), and a witty Danny DeVito as Douglas’s old college pal.
The film is written and directed by Brian Koppelman and David Levien who have previously proved that they are better writers (Rounders, The Girlfriend Experience) than directors (anyone remember Knockaround Guys?), but with the help of producer Steven Soderbergh, Solitary Man asserts both directors as powerhouses in depicting American struggle.
Let’s be honest, Michael Douglas hasn’t delivered a good performance since his one-two punch of Traffic and Wonder Boys in 2000. A decade later, he has two major films to help bring him back on top. You know he’ll shine in Oliver Stone’s Wall Street 2 later this year, reprising his Oscar-winning role as Gordon Gekko. But his work in Solitary Man is what will be remembered come awards time. Solitary Man is the best American film I’ve seen so far this year. 2010 has been dismal so far so I will repeat: Solitary Man is the best American film I’ve seen so far this year. A