Ben Kalmen is a 60-year-old self-pitying failure who had it all, threw it away, and now wants to pretend he can start all over as though nothing -- including time -- ever happened.
Once you get to know him, you never really hope he makes it.
Michael Douglas is the narcissistic and lecherous Ben in "Solitary Man," a once-successful, happily married car salesman who suddenly started cooking the books and bedding any woman who would say yes.
What happened to change him? A few things, but the biggie is in the first scene, before the main action of the film, when, during an annual physical, Ben's doctor mentions seeing something he "doesn't like" on his EKG.
The camera closes in on Douglas' shell-shocked expression and then phoom! it's six years later, Ben is still alive and there he goes, single, broke and strutting out to the incongruous strains of Johnny Cash singing "Solitary Man."
Douglas owns this movie from the first frame to the bitter, or perhaps bittersweet, ambiguous end. Co-directors Brian Koppelman and David Levien have fit the story onto their star like a bespoke suit -- a bespoke suit worn by a really unappealing character.
The Douglas resume is loaded with roles defined by philandering and financial chicanery ("Basic Instinct," "Wall Street" and more) that he carried off with charming aplomb. He refines that charm here, fearlessly and angrily.
Ben is so constantly on the make that he wants his grandson to call him Dad in public, and embraces his daughter in the hopes other women will think she's his young wife. He dates one woman (Mary-Louise Parker) because her father might help him get back in the car business; he sleeps with her teenage daughter (Imogen Poots) because he can.
Like a shark that has to keep moving or die, Ben cuts his way through everyone he meets -- family and friends, women and clients. He can still read people like open books, seducing men and women with his flattering insight into their personalities. It never takes long, though, before they see him for what he really is, and he has to move on.
"Solitary Man" has the look, feel and flaws of the independent movies that populate film festivals, but its cast is all-pro. Susan Sarandon is the former Mrs. Kalmen, surviving her divorce in comfort and good spirits; Danny DeVito is one of Ben's few remaining friends, and voices what passes for his conscience; and Jenna Fischer, from "The Office," is Ben's daughter, trying valiantly to understand what happened to the father she loved.
The story fleshes out these relationships richly, even the one between Ben and a college sophomore, Cheston (Jesse Eisenberg), who Ben takes under his wing and shares life lessons with, before he blows that, too.
In a nutshell, "Solitary Man" is the story of a no-longer-young man that we don't like who seems determined to ruin what is left of his life. He is, he says himself, "a man who has failed in starburst colors," and he doesn't say it proudly. There is, he admits, nothing noble in failure.
Koppelman and Levien have made an interesting, mostly humorless movie, but it lands in no easy category: Is the action inevitable, or merely undesirable? Is Ben's life tragic, or just sad? You might not be able to answer until you've been there.
2 1/2 stars (out of 4)
STARRING: Michael Douglas, Susan Sarandon, Jenna Fischer
DIRECTOR: Brian Koppelman and David Levien
RUNNING TIME: 90 minutes
RATING: PG for fantasy action violence.
THE LOWDOWN: A man is unable to come to grips with aging and his own self-destructive actions.