Friday, September 4, 2009

Solitary Man

Genre: Dark Comedy
Premise: A sex-addicted former car magnate tries to put his life back together.
About: Solitary Man stars Michael Douglas, Mary-Louise Parker, Susan Sarandon, Jenna Fischer, Danny DeVito, Jesse Eisenberg, and is directed by David Levien & Brian Koppelman. The sex-addicted character of Ben is one that Douglas understands well as he was diagnosed with sex addiction back in 1990 (take that you copycatter David Duchovny). The film was produced by Paul Schiff and Steven Soderbergh.
Writer: Brian Koppelman

Looking a lot like the old Michael Douglas.

As the Tornonto Film Festival gears up for its return, a lot of future indie darlings are prepping and hoping to get their name out there with a great screening. Festivals are like Grand Slam tournaments for indie projects (tennis reference) and they know that a good showing can be the difference between a wide indie release and a debut on your local video store shelf. Festival titans like Werner Herzog, Alejandro Amenabar, Lars Von Trier, and Terry Gilliam will be vying for your indie hearts and trying to generate buzz. But one movie that no one seems to be talking about is Solitary Man, the much less publicized starring comeback of Michael Douglas (he’ll also be starring in Oliver Stone’s Wall Street sequel). Well, if the script is any indication, this is a movie that should not only be on everybody’s radar, but could nab Douglas an Oscar nod if he takes advantage of what’s on the page.

Ben may be 60 years old, but he doesn’t act a day over 30. Everything he does, from dying his hair to the way he dresses, represents a man desperately trying to hold onto his youth. Back in the day, Ben was a shark. The guy owned one of the biggest car dealerships in New Jersey and was such a high roller, even the mayor knew who he was. But greed and carelessness resulted in some sketchy financial practices and Ben lost it all. It’s been some years now and Ben’s running out of his ‘fuck you’ money. He needs to make something happen fast or this “everything’s fine” fa├žade he’s put up will fall away faster than a Cameron Crowe script review.

Jesse Eisenberg prepping for The Social Network.

Which explains why he’s with Jordan, a 40 year-old divorcee who’s hot enough to land a role on Desperate Housewives. But Ben has no interest in Jordan. Ben has no interest in any relationships. It so happens that Jordan’s ex-husband runs in some high-class circles and Ben needs funding for his brand new car dealership – the business that’s going to put him back in the game. Ben slyly convinces Jordan to set up a meeting between the two so he can do what he does best: Sell.

Ben is not thrilled then when Jordan tells him that as long as he’s going up that way, he can take her daughter Allyson with him and introduce her to the Dean of the nearby college she wants to attend. Since it's Ben's Alma Mater, he can put in a good word for her. Neither Ben or Allyson is hip to this idea *at all*. Allyson is quite the bitch and it so happens she’s actually caught Ben cheating on her mom. Not that she cares. She hates Ben. But she hates her mom even more. The two actually agree to fake the trip and lie to the mom afterwards. But at the last second Ben grows a conscience and decides to do the right thing.

I have no idea what part Jenna Fischer is playing (probably Douglas' daughter). I just wanted to include a picture of her.

Once at the school, Ben both watches over and tries to stay out of the way of Allyson, as she seeks out one of those memorable self-destructive college visit nights (come on, we’ve all been there). In the process he meets uber-nerd Daniel (played by Jesse Eisenberg) and teaches him how to use car salesman tricks to talk women into sleeping with him. The two actually develop a bit of a friendship, and Ben watches proudly as Daniel emerges from his shell. Later at a bar, he spots Allyson talking to some douchebag, goes to save her, and the two actually find that they have more in common than they’d like to admit. One thing leads to another and before we know it the two are back at the hotel doing all sorts of self-destructive things.

Yes, Ben just slept with his girlfriend’s daughter. Have you stopped reading yet?

Here’s the thing. This doesn’t play out the way you think it will. At first glance it seems like Ben is the predator. But the next morning, we realize that he was actually the prey. For the first time in his life *he’s* been fucked. In a little karmic justice, Ben desperately tries to court Allyson, only to be fed a line he’s fed a lifetime of women: “Last night was fun. But that’s all it was.” Once home, Ben continues to desperately court Allyson. She realizes the only way to get him off her back is to do the unthinkable: She tells her mother she slept with him.

Bye bye car dealership!!!

And pretty much bye bye everything else. Ben’s life comes crashing down. He loses the financing. He loses his home. He's forced to beg his ex-wife for money. He has no friends to turn to because he’s burned every bridge he’s crossed – usually for a one night stand. And finally, here, this man, clinging to the last rung of respectability, doesn’t have anywhere to turn.

Ben is a sad sad character. You actually wince while reading him. Every scene is an exercise in saying, “No. No. Don’t do it!” And then he does. There’s a scene late in the movie, after Ben has helped Daniel land a beautiful girl who he ends up falling in love with. And they’re all hanging out at the bar and Daniel goes to the bathroom and it’s just Ben and the girlfriend. And you close your eyes and say, “Please. Please don’t do it.” But when you open them, there he is, asking her if she’s really satisfied with Daniel. Telling her that all he wants is one night. Daniel will never know. It’s sad and it’s disgusting and yet it’s incredibly compelling.

You see, despite it all, we’re rooting for Ben. He’s like Darth Vadar. We want him to change. We want him to see the light because somewhere deep inside him, we know there’s good. There’s a great final scene where he actually gets this opportunity. On one side is the hope of an honest life, and on the other, the mistakes that define his past. It’s a clever little moment with an ending that brought a smile to my face.

But hey, I’m not going to pretend like this is for everyone. Women, in particular, will probably find this character unbearable. But we've all known a Ben, maybe even have been him for awhile, and for that reason it’s a fascinating character study. Can't wait to see what the reaction to this is coming out of the festival.

[ ] What the hell did I just read?
[ ] barely kept my interest
[xx] worth the read
[ ] impressive
[ ] genius

What I learned: When you have this repulsive of a character, you need to give us something so we can root for him. If he’s 100% bad, we’ll hate the guy. Koppleman achieves this by giving Ben a grandson who he loves more than the world. In the scenes where the two are together, they get along so well and Ben is so happy to be with him, it allows us to see that good side. It helps us sympathize and gives us hope that he can become a better person.