A host of recent indie films have specialized in caustic characters and unlikable leads. Greenburg, Mother and Child, and Please Give have all featured some of the most unpleasant fictional characters of recent memory. However, none of their characters can hold a candle to Ben Kalmen in Solitary Man, played with gleeful abandon by Michael Douglas.
The former movies at least allowed us to believe that those characters wanted a chance at redemption. Those characters would have liked nothing more than to assuage their guilt over their toxic actions toward others. Not Ben. He gets a couple of opportunities to redeem himself, he thumbs his nose at said opportunities. He is one of the most narcissistic characters ever brought to life on film. He’s also a misogynistic pig.
Ben is sixty years old, yet he won’t even look at a woman over twenty. The lone exception to this disturbing rule is his current girlfriend (Mary-Louise Parker) who he keeps around because she is wealthy and has a well connected family. Ben is trying to rebuild his life and fortune after an embarrassing career-ending swindle he pulled when he was a car-salesman guru.
Disgraced and penniless, Ben tries to make up for his shortcomings by bedding as many women as is physically possible for a man his age. He treats the women with cool disregard and cruel contempt after they succumb to his charms. He is truly awful. He espouses offensive observations such as, “No one over forty is stick-thin.”
No person is insulated from Ben’s pathological need for self-gratification. He cheats on his girlfriend (with her daughter!) He beds and insults one of the moms from his grandson’s school, effectively putting his daughter (played by Jenna Fischer) in a horrible position when she runs into the woman at school. He oversleeps after a romp in the sack and misses his grandson’s birthday. Time and time again, he disappoints everyone connected to him.
Jenna Fischer is very convincing as the co-dependent daughter who keeps giving the old cad one more chance,when she should have cut him loose long ago. It’s a wholly realistic portrayal of a dysfunctional family dynamic. She acts as her father’s confidante, and it has clearly caused her emotional trauma. Who wants to hear about their dirty old dad’s sexual escapades? He won’t even let her call him dad in public, lest some nubile co-ed is within ear range, it might make him appear to be old.
Jesse Eisenberg shows up as a college student that Ben sort of befriends while he is taking his girlfriend’s daughter to his alma mater for a college visit. Predictably, Ben betrays him as well. It is really pathetic to see Ben attend college parties with his unwitting newfound friend. He has no idea how ridiculous he looks trying to keep up with kids forty years his junior.
Danny Devito plays an old college friend who runs a diner that Ben ultimately takes a job at, demonstrating just how far from grace he has fallen. Relative newcomer Imogen Poots (Centurion)plays Mary Louise Parker’s beguiling daughter, and eventual object of Ben’s desire. She is really beautiful, and made me think of a younger Scarlett Johansson.
His ex-wife (Susan Sarandon) is a much better woman than me. She is able to have casual lunches and dinners with her cheating ex, and remains calm and poised. I found this to be the weakest part of the film. It is completely ridiculous to think that any woman would remain friends with this jackass after all his indiscretions.
If any actor played this role besides Michael Douglas, I am not sure I would have walked out enjoying the movie. His performance sells the film, pure and simple. Directors David Levien and Brian Koppelman managed to make a movie that touches on family relationships, mortality, fear, and loneliness. This is not to be missed, and it is one of Michael Douglas’s finest performances.