Review: Solitary Man (2009)

Hey, Gordon Gekko got old.

Those of us of a certain age will remember the 1987 movie Wall Street and actor Michael Douglas’ notable portrayal of the Wall Street financier Gordon Gekko. Gekko uttered the immortal line, “Greed is good”. In Solitary Man, Gekko is back, sort of, except he changed his name to Ben Kalman but he is otherwise not that different in spirit from Gekko. Instead of working insider Wall Street deals, Ben owns a huge number of car dealerships that he made successful with many memorable car commercials and aggressive marketing practices. At least he did before he started cooking the books of his dealerships. Ben narrowly avoided prison, but managed to lose his fortune and estrange himself from virtually everyone who loves him.

Frankly, Solitary Man is a challenging film to watch because Ben is such an intensely unlikeable character. There are few things more pathetic than a sixty-something man wasting much of his energy trying to pick up women half or more his age. Ben is supposedly turning sixty, but the actor is actually sixty-five. Douglas may have some features of classic handsome gentlemen, but to me he simply looked old. When not trying to seduce women who could be his granddaughter, Ben is obsessed with resurrecting himself in the car dealership business. Unfortunately, he burned too many bridges and has become toxic.

Solitary Man is a compelling if hard to watch portrait of a big shot who became a has-been and who cannot accept the fact that he will never be a big shot again. Ben sees himself as the younger, suave and convincing car salesman that he used to be who can persuade pretty much anyone to do anything rather than the aging, graying and shamble of man that he is. The dichotomy causes a wrenching disconnect which means that every day he descends a bit lower into his own personal hell. It is painful to see a man Ben’s age repeatedly try to pick up young women, lie to people he should love, or to pass himself off as some sort of college kid when invited to a college mixer. Because he was tasked with escorting his stepdaughter to an interview, Ben ends up back at the college where he graduated and where the campus library, thanks to a generous endowment when he was successful, now bears his name. While back at his old Alma Mater with his nineteen-year-old stepdaughter, he figures, why not seduce her as well? After all, it worked with her mother and her daughter is much younger and thus far more desirable.

What Ben is really chasing is his own mortality. When he learns he has a heart condition, he prefers denial and almost immediately begins bed hopping. His one acknowledgment to his heart problem is downing an 81mg baby aspirin once a day. He wants to keep living the life he knew twenty years earlier, even though he now inhabits the body of an old man. While the wreckage is not pretty to watch, I must say Douglas does a remarkable job of convincingly portraying this mess of a man. Toward the end of the movie, his sole friends are an estranged buddy from his campus days Jimmy Merino (Danny DeVito) and maybe his ex-wife. It’s unclear why either of them would want anything to do with him. I sure wouldn’t. Send him to a Salvation Army shelter and make him listen to sermons for his supper. Yuck.

Expect a dispiriting movie but at least Michael Douglas still has “it”. He can play a creep quite convincingly. The whole cast is solid as well. It is unclear whom this movie appeals to and thus how the producers found the money to make it. It is definitely not a teen flick. For us middle aged adults, a story about someone our age chasing lost youth is a downer as well. Douglas is surrounded by a cast of mostly memorable supporting actors including Susan Sarandon as his ex-wife, DeVito, Jenna Fischer as his daughter and two ex-West Wingers: Richard Schiff and Mary-Louise Parker. I had forgotten just how stunningly feminine Mary-Louise Parker is. Speaking of middle-aged fantasies, she is my female fantasy of the moment. Sorry, Jewel Staite.

A subject this dispiriting but well done is not often portrayed in Hollywood, so you should not necessarily give the movie miss a miss if you have the opportunity to see it. You may feel the need to watch parts of it between your fingers, or shout at the screen, “You are being such a damned moron, Ben!” Being middle aged myself, I am not necessarily inoculated to the lure of a much younger woman either. However, seeing Solitary Man is something like marriage insurance. If I feel the need to make a fool of myself with younger women, perhaps I can remind myself that I might behave like Ben Kalman, or maybe worse.

If you have the stomach for this kind of movie, it’s well done. 3.3 on my 4-point scale.

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