Perhaps no other actor in the modern era has been able to slip into the skin of morally conflicted characters as well as Michael Douglas. Granted, he was kicking around Hollywood for nearly 20 years before his back-to-back breakthrough to mega-stardom in 1987 with Fatal Attraction and Wall Street, but he’s never looked back—nearly always portraying characters with real conflicts in dilemmas that spoke to the hottest issues of the day in films like Falling Down, War of the Roses and Disclosure.
But the past decade has been unkind to Douglas at the box office, as he’s appeared in a string of ambitious yet arty films that have barely seen release, while being criminally ignored for an Oscar on 2000’s superb and highly underrated film Wonder Boys. This fall could see a big turnaround for him when the sequel to Wall Street comes out, with Douglas reprising his Oscar-winning turn as ruthless financial trader Gordon Gekko in a film that’s already caused a sensation at the Cannes Film Festival.
In the meantime, catch him while you can in the terrific new character-based dramedy Solitary Man, in which Douglas plays a downtrodden car salesman named Ben Kalmen, who’s turning 60 while his world is tumbling down around him. He had been ethically upright and successful in his business and his marriage until a doctor warned him six years ago that his heart might have serious problems.
Rather than undergoing the proper tests and treatment, Kalmen decided to get reckless with his life, setting up numerous financial scams at his mega-lots and cheating on his wife (played by Susan Sarandon) at every turn. After a prison stint for fraud, he’s lost everything and is reduced to borrowing rent money from his own daughter (Jenna Fischer), is having one-night stands with his daughter’s friends, not to mention the 18-year-old daughter of his girlfriend (Mary Louise Parker).
Only when Ben screws up so badly that his daughter won’t let him see his grandson again does Ben make the effort to get his life together. He returns to the small college town that he vowed never to revisit and settles in to live and work with an old buddy (Danny Devito) who never rose above running a popular student restaurant.
Will humility teach Ben a lesson? Can he restore a sense of dignity and order to his life? Will he continue his reckless ways as a solitary man or seek out lifelines from the friends and family around him?
Refreshingly, the Solitary writer-director team of Brian Koppleman and David Levien (Rounders, Oceans Thirteen) are smart enough to know that life doesn’t always have easy answers to such morally complex questions. They also realize that for intelligent audiences, the constant element of surprise and the willingness to show characters fighting their way through the gray areas of life can be richly rewarding in themselves.
There isn’t a moment that rings false in Solitary Man, while the film also offers plenty of truths that can give any viewer plenty to consider about their own lives. In expertly portraying Ben Kalmen’s deeply conflicted soul, Michael Douglas may not yet have won the Oscar for this year’s Best Actor, but he certainly deserves to be among the nominees in waiting next March.