Solitary Man (Blu-ray)
Michael Douglas has a gift for playing flawed men. From the philandering Dan Gallagher in Fatal Attraction, to the “mad as hell” D-Fens in Falling Down, to the doomed Nick Curran in Basic Instinct, to the emotionally crippled Nicholas van Orton in The Game, to the perpetually stoned Grady Tripp in Wonder Boys, to that granddaddy of all corporate sharks, Gordon Gekko, Douglas has never been afraid to risk losing an audience’s sympathy. It’s probably because he has such a natural rapport with the camera, and such innate charm, that he always manages to win people over, despite the flaws of the character he’s playing. And the flaws can be huge. Gordon Gekko may be a monster, but he’s still a beloved character. Such is the magic of a charismatic actor.
In Solitary Man, Douglas takes on what may be the riskiest character he’s ever attempted. The man of the title is Ben Kalmen, a cut-rate Gordon Gekko who’s fallen on hard times. Co-director Brian Koppelman’s script is inventive in the depths to which it has Ben sink, but Douglas plays him so skillfully that, even as he shows you one ugly thing after another about Ben Kalmen, he keeps you interested in what Kalmen will do or say next.
Studio: Anchor Bay Entertainment
Film Length: 90 min.
Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1
HD Encoding: 1080p
HD Codec: VC-1
Audio: DD 5.1; PCM 5.1
Subtitles: English SDH; Spanish
Disc Format: 1 25GB
Theatrical Release Date: May 21, 2010
Blu-ray Release Date: Sept. 7, 2010
“Almost six and a half years ago . . .” says the opening title card. Ben Kalmen (Douglas) is getting his annual physical. A rich and successful businessman, Ben owns a car dealership with outlets throughout New York, Connecticut and New Jersey. He’s always “on”, feeding his doctor a steady stream of patter as if the doctor were a customer (which, apparently, he is). As Ben buttons up his shirt at the end of the exam, he suggests they get in a round of golf, but his doctor says they have to talk. There was something on the EKG. The room goes quiet.
Cut to the present. Ben’s circumstances have changed radically. The details emerge gradually throughout the film, but Ben is divorced and living alone in a Manhattan apartment. As Johnny Cash’s version of “Solitary Man” plays over the credits, Ben walks alone to meet his married daughter, Susan (Jenna Fischer), and grandson, Scotty (Jake Siciliano), at a playground. There he insists that Scotty call him “Dad” and that Susan hug him as if they might be married, because a young platinum blonde may be checking him out. Despite being sixty, Ben (like the actor playing him) has kept his looks. That and a silver tongue have allowed him to score an impressive array of bedpost notches.
Ben is currently broke, but he’s trying to rebuild his business. He’s identified a great location for a new dealership, won over the young company rep (Ben Shenkman) appointed to review the proposal, and is just a few votes away from getting the company board to approve him. All he needs is a nod from the well-connected father of his current girlfriend, a spoiled Manhattan divorcée named Jordan (Mary-Louise Parker). But first Jordan wants a favor. Her daughter, Allyson (Imogen Poots), has an interview at Ben’s alma mater in Boston, a college to which, in better times, Ben was a major donor. There’s a library named after him, and Ben still knows the dean. Since Jordan has the flu, can Ben escort Allyson? (Allyson, who behaves like a refugee from Gossip Girl, says she can go on her own, but her mother won’t hear of it.)
With little choice, Ben accompanies Allyson to Boston, where, among other things, he offers unorthodox dating advice to the student assigned to escort him around campus, an earnest innocent named Cheston (Jesse Eisenberg, who appears to work constantly). Ben also looks up an old friend from his college years, Jimmy Merino (Danny DeVito), who inherited the sandwich shop from his father where he and Ben used to hang out when they were college students and where students still congregate. (This was the first time Douglas and DeVito worked together since 1989's The War of the Roses.)
By the end of the film, Ben will have wrecked all his plans and almost every relationship. It’s a re-enactment, in miniature, of the serial disasters he brought on himself in the six and a half years since the opening scene. It quickly becomes clear (and by the end of the film there’s no doubt) that Ben knows exactly what he’s doing, which just makes his behavior that much more appalling. Still, Ben’s antics are quite funny, if your taste runs to the darker side of comedy. Rarely has a character been so successful at tripping over his own feet (and other appendages).
Co-directors Brian Koppleman and David Levien are veteran screenwriters with credits that include Rounders and Ocean’s Thirteen (whose director, Steven Soderbergh, helped produce Solitary Man). Both grew up on Long Island, and the idea for Solitary Man came from years of observing Manhattan-based Masters of the Universe in various stages of their rise and fall. Research continued during filming. After one day’s shooting, Douglas went out to dinner, only to come back and report to his directors that “I just saw three Ben Kalmens”.
The plot is relatively straightforward. What holds your attention is the dialogue, which often takes sharp and unexpected turns, and is delivered with wit and style by both Douglas and the impressive supporting cast the directors were able to assemble once Douglas was attached. Low-budget independent films don’t usually get the benefit of filling even small parts with such notable talent. Richard Schiff (best known from The West Wing) has a single scene as Ben’s long-time banker, but it’s a killer scene. David Costabile, who played a crooked cop on Damages, has minimal screen time as Ben’s long-suffering son-in-law, but you can feel the quiet fury as if the guy were about to burst. Anastasia Griffith, also a Damages veteran, appears briefly as a friend of Ben’s daughter, but she immediately conveys what her character is about. Late in the film, an uncredited Olivia Thirlby (Juno) plays a college student who teaches Ben a well-deserved lesson.
As Ben’s ex-wife, Nancy, Susan Sarandon creates a portrait of one of the few women that Ben ever respected, someone who’s always seen through his tricks but loved him anyway. Douglas gets the whole film to show you Ben’s intelligence. In just a few scenes, Sarandon is able to show you that Nancy is his equal – and has a lot more character. It’s the way she and Douglas play off each other that makes it all work. (They had never acted together before this film, but you’d never know it.)
British newcomer Imogen Poots (28 Weeks Later) beat out numerous American actresses for the part of Allyson, and she’s the film’s revelation. Her scenes with Douglas crackle with intensity, because Allyson’s character is an almost lethal mixture of intelligence and hostility. Equally angry at both of her divorced parents, she views the adult world as a huge target range. Like Valmont in Dangerous Liaisons, she never opens her mouth without first considering what damage she can do. The feckless, self-indulgent adults around her have bulls-eyes painted on them.
Koppelman and Levien shot the film in long uninterrupted takes, giving the actors an opportunity to converse and react to each other, and also giving Douglas’ Ben Kalmen a chance to show what made him such a great salesman. Ben’s greatest sale was selling himself on his own infallibility. It’s the reason why he’s alone.
German cinematographer Alwin Kuchler (who shot Danny Boyle’s Sunshine) has given Solitary Man a low-key realistic look. New York City has been routinely photographed for movies and TV in recent years, and it’s usually stylized so that I barely recognize the locations. However, in Solitary Man, I immediately recognized numerous locales, and they looked almost exactly like they do in real life. The Blu-ray transfer accurately reproduces the “life size” effect that I recall from the theatrical experience, and no attempt has been made to heighten or intensify the colors or cast a glow over anything. Detail is good, but the image has a flatness and lack of “pop” that is consistent with Ben’s reduced circumstances. Like many New Yorkers, Ben favors a black wardrobe, and if the disc’s black levels weren’t appropriate, the wardrobe wouldn’t look right. It does. I did not detect any artifacts or signs of DNR.
On the commentary track, the two directors indicate that they initially instructed their mixers to do nothing other than realistic sound. That is primarily what the PCM 5.1 track delivers, but their head mixer ultimately persuaded them to be more flexible in key scenes (e.g., the conclusion of Ben’s medical exam). Ambient noise appropriate to the various environments is subtly placed in the surrounds, but the track’s emphasis is on dialogue, which remains firmly anchored to the center speaker and is always clear. Michael Penn’s unobtrusive score is nicely interwoven throughout the film.
Commentary by Writer/Director Brian Koppelman, Director David Levien and Actor Douglas McGrath. Koppelman and Levien invited McGrath to join them for the commentary, because he’s a friend and fellow writer/director. McGrath’s direct knowledge of the film is limited to the single scene in which he appears as the college dean, but he assumes the role of informal prompter and interviewer during the commentary, and the result is a lively exchange. The participants discuss specific scenes, but also depart from the action on screen to discuss the writing of the script, casting, rehearsal, the discipline imposed by a tight budget, and the creative input by such people as Steven Soderbergh and Ethan Coen, both of whom offered valuable suggestions in the editing room.
Solitary Man: Alone in a Crowd (SD; enhanced for 16:9) (11:46). An entertaining making-of featurette containing interviews with Douglas, Fischer, DeVito, Eisenberg, Poots (with her native English accent) and the two directors. Though no great insights into the film are offered, the interviewees are enthusiastic and pleasant company.
Trailers. The film’s trailer is included as a separate extra. At startup, the disc plays trailers for City Island and After.Life; these can be skipped with the top menu button and are separately available from the features menu, which also contains trailers for Beyond a Reasonable Doubt and Abandoned.
With the recent revelation that Douglas is suffering from cancer, Solitary Man has acquired an additional layer of “life imitates art” irony. But Ben Kalmen is not Douglas. He’s just the latest in a series of remarkable portrayals by one of America’s most distinctive actors, who consistently does his best work when he’s playing someone you’d probably despise if you met him in real life, but somehow, when Michael Douglas plays him, you just can’t help yourself – you have to hear him out.
Equipment used for this review:
Panasonic BDP-BD50 Blu-ray player (PCM decoded internally and output as analog)
Samsung HL-T7288W DLP display (connected via HDMI)
Lexicon MC-8 connected via 5.1 passthrough
Sunfire Cinema Grand amplifier
Monitor Audio floor-standing fronts and MA FX-2 rears
Boston Accoustics VR-MC center
SVS SB12-Plus sub