Ben Kalmen is a man who had it all: pots of money from his high-end auto franchise, a beautiful wife and daughter, a lavish Manhattan apartment, the works. Then, because he's a complete fool, he started throwing it all away. As "Solitary Man" begins, he seems intent on completing that mission.
Kalmen is an off-putting character, an ethically oblivious 60-year-old man who slavers after every woman who wanders within range of his come-ons, the younger the better. The triumph of Michael Douglas' performance in this role is that he plays Kalmen as exactly what he is — a creep — and yet keeps us with him, wondering if this down-bound hustler can possibly come to his senses before he hits bottom — and whether we should even care. As was the case with Jeff Bridges in last year's "Crazy Heart," Douglas reveals himself here as a veteran actor, familiar from dozens of other movies over the last 40 years, who's still capable of doing his best work; who can still surprise us.
The picture opens with a flashback: We see Kalmen being told by a doctor that he has a heart problem, and should return for further tests. That was six years ago, and Ben never went back — physical infirmity doesn't fit in with his self-image as an all-conquering big-city business stud. He subsequently pulled a financial scam in which a lot of people got hurt, and his reputation never recovered — one day he was on the cover of Forbes magazine, dripping success; the next he was pictured in the New York Times in handcuffs. He spent all of his money on the lawyers who barely kept him out of prison.
Now we find Kalmen living in an apartment he can't afford, hitting up his daughter (Jenna Fischer) for loans, and trying to maintain a breezy facade for the sake of his adoring young grandson (Jake Siciliano), whom he begs not to call him grandpa. He's also dating a well-to-do divorcee named Jordan (Mary-Louise Parker) and struggling to win the approval of her teenage daughter, Allyson (Imogen Poots), which has so far not been forthcoming. Things aren't going well for Ben, but they could be worse. Actually, they soon will be.
Douglas smoothly conveys the personality flaws of which Kalmen is so blindly unaware. Ben is the kind of aging hotshot who still wears black ties with black shirts and who butts into other people's conversations in order to talk about himself, and the actor gets this overbearing boorishness just right. The supporting cast is pretty much perfect, too. Fischer is especially moving as a woman torn between love for her father and a growing need to banish him from her life; Poots is astringently effective as a girl who's wised-up way beyond her years; and Susan Sarandon makes concisely underplayed appearances as Ben's ex-wife, who's observing his southward spiral from afar. Most surprising, perhaps, is Danny DeVito, who gives a glowing performance as Kalmen's only true friend, the owner of a diner near the college Ben attended in his long-gone youth.
Hovering above the picture is our awareness of a certain resemblance between Ben Kalmen and the man who plays him. Like Ben, Michael Douglas is a highly successful businessman (among the many movies he's produced is the 1975 Oscar-winner "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest") with a onetime reputation for hard partying (although he says the alcoholism for which he entered rehab 20 years ago was trumped up as "sex addiction" in the press). It seems likely that his well-known past has informed his portrayal of Kalmen, and there's an element of bravery in his taking on of such an unsympathetic character. Unlike Jeff Bridges (until recently), Douglas already has one Academy Award as an actor (for the 1987 "Wall Street"). It's too early to bother speculating about whether he could win another for his performance in this film. But he's already in the running.
Don't miss Kurt Loder's review of "MacGruber," also new in theaters this week.
Check out everything we've got on "Solitary Man."
For breaking news, celebrity columns, humor and more — updated around the clock — visit MTVMoviesBlog.com.