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Solitary Man (Blu-ray Review)

13 Sep, 2010 By: Mike Clark

Anchor Bay
Box Office $4.3 million
$29.98 DVD, $34.99 Blu-ray
Rated ‘R’ for language and some sexual content.
Stars Michael Douglas, Susan Sarandon, Mary-Louise Parker, Jesse Eisenberg.

Professional film programmers (current and used-to-be’s) always think in programming terms, and were I asked to concoct a series on a juicy if likely uncommercial subject  — “Denial” — Michael Douglas’ first-of-two 2010 comeback movies would be a prime contender.

I say first-of-two based on the reviews Douglas got out of Cannes for reprising his Oscar-winning Gordon Gekko in Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps, scheduled for release in two weeks unless the actor’s current serious illness changes the marketing plans. But for now, Solitary Man is Douglas’ best role and best performance since 2000’s Wonder Boys — one in which his character’s underlying seediness is (for awhile) camouflaged in huckster’s veneer. Co-directed by DVD/Blu-ray voiceover commentators Brian Koppelman and David Levien, who previously co-wrote Rounders, Ocean’s 13 and The Girlfriend Experience, Man is indisputably modest but clearly the best of that bunch. Joining them on the commentary is actor/director Douglas McGrath, whose essays on various screen subjects (including a dead-on appreciation of Doris Day not long ago) often appear in the New York Times.

At one point before the movie begins, New Yorker Ben Kalman (Douglas) had billed himself as an “honest” car salesman — until some heavily publicized Ponzi chicanery or something close on his part barely avoided consequences even more severe than permanently depleted funds and the breakup of his marriage to an obviously perfect woman (Susan Sarandon) who still carries a residue of good will toward him.

Ben was a dope to have lost her but still has a roving eye for women of all ages — occasionally scoring (amid at least as many embarrassments) despite mounting evidence that sooner rather than later, this will be a track record impossible to maintain. You can see why he appears to favor his current squeeze (Mary-Louise Parker) less for affection than for her connections: she’s kind of cold, and Ben desperately needs her influential father to help him springboard back into the auto biz. But even so — and given his current state, especially — Ben would probably be better off not taking her college-bound daughter (Imogen Poots) up to Boston for a weekend that involves drinks in a bar and the usual opportunities for nature to take its course. The now-chapped mom’s hardball lawyers, who basically want Ben to cease and desist from being on the same planet, apply that trip’s final exclamation point.

This gets the story to roughly the halfway point, whereupon a couple interesting things happen. Motivated by circumstances to take up residence on campus — and, my, what pretty young women are walking to class — Ben surprises by taking naturally to making sandwiches in a college eatery owned by an old pal (Danny DeVito) despite the ongoing swagger he carries of one convinced he’s nearing his re-ascension to the top. The other compelling story turn is the relationship Ben eventually forges and then pollutes with the young student assigned to be his “campus guide” (in sunnier financial days, Ben treated the college to his deep pockets). A sophomore with a cute girlfriend, he’s played by Jesse Eisenberg (the lead in David Fincher’s coming big-buzz New York Film Festival opener The Social Network). Eisenberg specializes in playing green but intelligent youngsters who likely have solid GPAs — the kind of sensitive kids more likely to forgive a slight than forget one. In this case, Ben pushes matters to distasteful limits, which may test the charity of viewers he’s hitherto bought off with humor and personal magnetism.

In terms of women, Ben remains a salesman through and through and one unable to avoid making cold calls — a situation on its way to making him the old fool for which “there’s no fool like an old fool” was coined. Whether you like (or can forgive) the guy or not, Douglas makes him real. I had to travel a long way to see Solitary Man in theaters because it didn’t get that many engagements, but I also noted that it hung on wherever it was playing, which indicates sturdy word-of-mouth. In a movie year where there haven’t been that many big-screen sleepers, Anchor Bay has had this and City Island both. Nice.

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