by Tony Dayoub
There's a certain kind of "indie" film—your Little Miss Sunshine, or Slumdog Millionaire, or Crazy Heart—films which challenge their audience a bit more than the average mainstream film, but not too much. I put "indie" in quotes because the film is not the true independent from back in Cassavettes' day. It still benefits from the positioning a major actor or a cast of major actors provides. It still gets funding (at least on the tail end of the post-production/marketing stage) from a smaller shingle overseen by a big studio, or what they sometimes call a mini-major like a Lionsgate Films. This year's trendy film in this category is The Kids Are All Right, the one with Julianne Moore and her wife (Annette Benning) meeting their kids' biological father (Mark Ruffalo) whose sperm was used to inseminate each of them. These movies are usually pleasant enough I find. And I usually venture into them with an open heart, predisposed to liking them because of the alternative they offer to "the same old shit." But I usually leave feeling betrayed, for any number of reasons. Either the film's conclusion holds a "message"; or a contrivance is offered in the course of the film to goose up a narrative which hardly seemed evident through the first two-thirds of the film; or in the case of The Kids Are All Right, some annoying alt-rock soundtrack is married to the film in order to tell me how I should be feeling every step of the way (see Away We Go). What a true pleasure it is to encounter a film such as Solitary Man then—a movie which I went into feeling fairly guarded after the number of times I'd been burned—and finding a true gem.
Some of the goodwill which I left feeling towards Solitary Man may have to do with a number of things. First of all, it has a wonderful low-key score by Michael Penn (Boogie Nights), its soundtrack featuring few of the annoying "needledrops" which mar even the best indie films (like I mentioned above)—save for a fantastic rendition of the title song by Johnny Cash. Secondly, directors Brian Koppelman and David Levien (Knockaround Guys) really give the film a strong sense of place with many scenes that could have easily gone indoors (a typical way for indies to save money) making the best of the New York city environs the story is set in. Lastly, the sad irony of watching Michael Douglas playing a role like this after I'd just heard he is suffering from stage 4 cancer does give the film a certain resonance.
Douglas plays Ben Kalmen (think Gordon Gekko as a car dealer), a man who responds to a brush with mortality by entrenching himself even more firmly in his selfish cynicism. After the initial scene where he discovers he may have a heart problem, the film picks up six years later to show you how little his life has progressed, in some cases even encountering giant reversals. He lost his dealership in a scandal; left his wife (Susan Sarandon); blows off time with his daughter (Jenna Fischer) and grandson in favor of afternoon trysts with women he picks up (one is even the mother of one of his grandson's friends); he mooches off his Park Avenue girlfriend (Mary-Louise Parker) in order to use her connections to set up a new dealership, then turns around and sleeps with her college-age daughter (Imogen Poots).
As distasteful as all of this may sound, Solitary Man is a rather enjoyable little character study which features one of Douglas' most nuanced performances, certainly his best since Wonder Boys (2000). Kalmen is a creep, but once you get to the bottom of why he continues to wander through life thinking only of himself he earns a small amount of sympathy. And his friendships with a big-hearted college student (Jesse Eisenberg) and an old friend from his alma mater (Danny DeVito) offer a redemptive quality to the character.
Released on Blu-ray last week, Solitary Man arrives with few extras, but one worth checking out is the commentary featuring Koppelman, Levien, and their friend, actor-writer-director Douglas McGrath. Far from being the traditional promotional puff piece you usually get with a new film, Koppelman and Levien submit to an interview by McGrath that informs viewers on their process as writer-directors as well as entertains, their anecdotal approach reflecting the friendship between the three participants.