Movie Review: Solitary Man – amazing performances, weak storytelling

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“Solitary Man” makes you feel, well… alone in the world.  It is bleak. It is possibly the most depressing thing I’ve seen since “The Road.”  But yet, if scenery chewing performances from veteran actors is your thing, this may be your film.

For me, not so much.

This is the story of Ben Kalmen (Michael Douglas) and we watch as he goes from one of the most successful car lot owners in New York to the lowest of low states. He is joined by an amazing supporting cast: Susan Sarandon as his ex-wife, Mary-Louise Parker (“Angels in America,” “Weeds)” as his current girlfriend, Jenna Fischer (“The Office”) as his daughter, Danny DeVito as a long-lost college friend, Jesse Eisenberg (“Zombieland”) as a college student Kalmen tries to mentor, and a quick cameo by Richard Schiff (“The West Wing”).  By far, it is this cast that makes the movie.

I love Micheal Douglas.  I was raised almost from the womb watching Romancing the Stone on VHS.  He was a stellar performance in Traffic among a stellar ensemble cast.  Whenever I get depressed or need motivation, I play the press conference scene from “The American President” that ends with “My name is Andy Shepherd, and I AM President of the United States.”  So, yeah, I like Michael Douglas.

But I think he must’ve been taking acting lessons from the Al Pacino/Ben Affleck/William Shatner school of acting for this film.  No piece of scenery, including the beatiful cityscape of New York, including the beatuiful campus of Fordham University in the Bronx doubling as a Boston-area liberal arts college–  no piece of scenery in this films was left unchewed. But despite the somewhat ham-fisted performance here, Douglas was captivating as Kalmen.  In the best moments, you can actually see the wheels in his head turning.  There is incredible nuance in some of the acting here, and you see a range of guilt, Machiavellian deception, fear, and quiet desperation plain on his face.

Susan Sarandon is also a major delight here as the formerly long-suffering wife. Jenna Fischer as their daughter, and mother of Ben’s only grandson, also stands out and shows she really has the potential for a great career to be more than just “Pam the receptionist” on “The Office.” Mary-Louise Parker is also great here, as is Danny Devito, who I was originally skeptical of but won me over through sheer charm.

If only we had a story to match it.

The only thing I can compare this to is the opposite of “Clerks.”  “Clerks” was poorly shot, badly acted, and a mess technically.  But it had such heart, and the script and story were so great, so relatable, that it remains one of my favorite films to this day.  “Solitary Man” is all polish and no substance when it comes to the basic story.  Are we supposed to like Ben Kalman, hate him, feel sorry for him, admire him?  Unknown. And the script opens with Ben sitting in a doctor’s office receiving some bad news, we then flash forward several years on his slide towards the bottom not knowing exactly what happened after the doctor’s voice faded out about running some tests.  We’re left wondering what set him on this course of self-sabotaging behavior and whether it was justified or not.  And without that clarity, the film loses any sense of cohesion for having some sort of moral or piece of wisdom to impart.  By the time we find out at the end what happened next in the doctor’s office, it’s as though the filmmakers just wanted to go “Tah-Dah!  And that’s the message.”  By then I felt like throwing myself off the Triborough Bridge and would have preferred the movie just simply be over and done with.

Clerks even with bad acting and the epitome of low budget filmmaking delivered its message. Solitary Man left me confused, frustrated, bored….. and still in awe of how great these performances were.

So, are you the kind of filmgoer for whom plot and message really matter?  If so, maybe avoid this one.  If you love to delve into the craft of acting and can tolerate abysmal storytelling?  Then this maybe is for you.

2 stars: 1 for Michael Douglas, and 1 for every other member of the cast.

Solitary Man has been playing in New York and LA, it opens in select markets this week and more widely next week.  Check you local arthouse or independent cinema or wherever artsy-farsy movies are played in your neighborhood.

It is rated R for language, some violence, drinking, and general mysanthropic behavior and runs a seemingly interminable 90 minutes.

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