Michael Douglas is best known for playing unscrupulous corporate types, most iconically Gordon Gekko in “Wall Street,” but he has also had a thriving minicareer playing dissolute types. Arguably his best performance is as the unraveled English professor in “Wonder Boys.” So it was with no small expectation that I looked forward to “Solitary Man,” where Douglas plays an amalgam of high-on-the-hog and down-on-his-luck. What could be a better combo for him?
As it turns out, the fit is a bit bulky. He’s playing Ben, known on TV and on the cover of “Forbes” as “New York’s honest car dealer.” That was before he cheated his way out of his profession. Trying to crawl back into the business, he derails his chances by consistently chasing college-age women, or their mothers. Ben is even more successful as a self-sabotager than he was as a CEO. Is he deliberately trying to do himself in? Codirectors Brian Koppelman and David Levien, working from Koppelman’s script, are vague about it. They’re content to have us sit back and watch Ben disintegrate. No Dostoevskian depths here.
The deepest they delve is sub-Arthur Miller terrain. Ben is like Willy Loman with satyriasis. Douglas is very good in the role, but Koppelman’s scenario is far too schematic. Neglecting the counsel of everybody from his cardiologist to his ex-wife (Susan Sarandon) to his exasperated daughter (Jenna Fischer), Ben is on a one-way trajectory to nowhere. We can see where it’s all going from the first frame. Were it not for the sympathetic emotional shadings Douglas provides, “Solitary Man” would seem like one long wallow. A great punitiveness hangs over this film. It’s as if Ben was being set up as a straw man for all the corporate sharks who ever crossed the line.
Douglas has a good supporting cast to work with though – he’s not the whole show despite appearing in every scene. Besides the actors already mentioned, Imogen Poots is terrific in a small role as the daughter of the wealthy woman (Mary-Louise Parker) Ben is dating for her family connections. Danny DeVito has a warm cameo as an old college acquaintance of Ben’s, who runs a diner near Ben’s alma mater. Jesse Eisenberg is playing his patented role of college nerd, but so far the patent has not expired.
For the literal-minded, there’s an added bonus: Johnny Cash singing “Solitary Man” over the opening credits. Grade: B- (Rated R for language and some sexual content.)
More Monitor movie reviews