“Out there is nothing but possibilities”
Have films embraced the ambiguous ‘does he or doesn’t he’ ending too often recently? I feel bad beginning with that question since I did actually like Solitary Man very much, but liking the whole doesn’t discount the fact that a contrived ‘conversational’ fade to black has gone from bold to clichéd in a short period of time. An easy device to end stories containing a central figure who reaches an epiphany on life, the viewer can contemplate what they saw and choose where they feel the character will eventually go. Michael Douglas’s Ben Kalmen is the epitome of such a trope—a former success story with car franchises and cover photos on Forbes who quickly devolved into a man-whore thief who’s name became synonymous with untouchable. He lived the big life and had it all financially and personally until a doctor’s visit unearthed his mortality. Never taking the ordered tests, Ben decides he can longer sit back and be invisible to the world, making a series of bad decisions to ruin everything. The bad press definitely made it hard to ignore him, but it takes almost a decade later to realize his family never would have.
Writer Brian Koppelman and his co-director David Levien have had a hit and miss career, most successfully penning a gem in Soderbergh’s The Girlfriend Experience and possibly creating their magnum opus, straight out of the gate, with their debut Rounders. The direction this time around is assured and successful, especially when you take into consideration the large number of supporting roles coming in and out of Kalmen’s life. As far as the script goes, one could label it unoriginal in its use of themes and, as stated above, it’s open-ended final shot, but you can’t deny its value as entertainment or view on humanity. A definite vanity piece for Douglas, the film allows him to really shine as a conflicted character on a steady decent from bad to worse. His shining role, to me, will always be Wonder Boys and his odd-ball professor subverting all the glamour and confidence of his oeuvre, and there is a little of it in Ben Kalmen, scratching at the surface of yet another Gordon Gekko rehash. Years past his mid-life crisis, the film shows what he does afterwards with the knowledge learned from a dismantled career and new relationships based solely on what he’ll gain from the transaction.
A man of integrity and power, Kalmen might have been constantly out on business or working to better his growing dealerships, but he loved and cherished the family back at home. Whether his college sweetheart wife Nancy (Susan Sarandon) or his compassionate daughter Susan (Jenna Fischer), he led a balanced existence where his own biological decline was the only fault. No longer appearing to be relevant with the youth of America and finding out there was a chance death was coming in a measurable amount of time, he took the reins and steered them askew towards a parallel plane to prove he could do anything he wanted. Whether that meant bedding co-eds, daughters of millionaires, or stealing cash off from his customers, none of it mattered. He had the liquidity to buy friends to stay out of jail and the charisma to build up the support for a name—his own—now worth less than the ink it takes to write it. Sadly, he also retained the bullheaded, ‘truth shall set you free’ mentality of conversation that would threaten to make his already bad lot worse.
Douglas’s lead performance carries the film through good times and bad as he shuffles along on favors and charity whence he once happily wrote checks for college university libraries and alimony payments. We see heart when around his grandson Scotty (Jake Richard Siciliano) and his drive for success when meeting impressionable young adults willing to listen. Wanting to be the sage voice of wisdom, Kalmen actually has merit in his life gems, proving a career in motivational speaking—if the proposed joke of FBI profiler falls through—would be a worthwhile endeavor. Jesse Eisenberg’s Cheston is transformed from bookish, campus president sophomore year to a successful and cool junior living off-campus and throwing parties for the quad, while Imogen Poots’s Allyson is educated on the power of voice and how, whether in life or in bed, she could take control and guide those along for the ride. Kalmen sees himself in both and thus instills the qualities he learned in hopes they don’t ‘waste’ the first forty years of their lives as he did. Thankfully, they are smarter than his wily maneuverings, appropriating his teachings to already strong personalities, a fact that gives them just as much pity towards Ben as they may have respect.
The plot of Solitary Man may meander into over-used territory such as threats of mob-like abuse or the undefeatable power of friendship—Danny DeVito gives a welcome role of normalcy in his Jimmy Marino, an old buddy who’s bond trumped anything he may have heard through the media—but it rises above each through successful acting. It’s a title that appropriately defines it center, becoming a generalized description as well as a misnomer for a man who has so many people around him, if he only allowed himself to see. Dramatic to the point of Douglas constantly having to reinvent himself into the kind of person he ignored in the past, it’s tragically comical in the fact his new lifestyle actually makes him more invisible than ever. The women he sleeps with use him for cheap fun and his family finds itself making ultimatums for him to either be available or go away and never come back. A few smartly placed roles help spark his internal catharsis, such as Olivia Thirlby’s Maureen, but it really ends up being his decision alone on how to live the rest of his days. Our interpretation of his smile decides whether it’ll be more of the same or a return to family.
 Michael Douglas and Jesse Eisenberg in Solitary Man
 Michael Douglas and Susan Sarandon in Solitary Man
 Michael Douglas stars as Ben and Danny DeVito stars as Jimmy in Anchor Bay Films’ Solitary Man (2010). Photo credit by Phil Caruso.