Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Solitary Man (dir. Brian Koppelman & David Levien)

That Michael Douglas, he's so smug.

There are certain kinds of movies I can watch again and again and again, from the people-trapped-in-a-confined-place genre film to the spare, artsy, wow-that's-an-impressive-shot-but-what-did-that-ending-mean? to the crackerjack-script thriller, but one I always forget about is the story of a man who can't stop screwing himself, and everyone he knows, over. Be it Raging Bull or The Wrestler the finer aspects of Iron Man 2, I'll watch hours of a man dig himself a deeper and deeper hole until there's no further to dig.

It's especially satisfying when it happens to Michael Douglas, an actor who has rarely, if ever, done much for me, but is absolutely wonderful here. Playing Ben Kalmen, a car salesman who's managed to squander his business, his marriage, and his personal relationships (and that's just by the beginning of the film), Douglas digs deep into his persona without completely unraveling it - the Michael Douglas character would never leave himself fully exposed. At least, not like that.

He does manage to leave himself physically exposed most nights of the week, chasing whatever woman will have him and more than a few who won't. The film's most uncomfortable moments, the necessary ones that most challenge our willingness to sympathize with Ben, stem from this most urgent of needs. It's to writer Brian Koppelman's credit that actions that may repulse us up front will be turn out to be the cause of our deepest sympathy, and Douglas' credit that he seems as disgusted as we are before long. There's a fine line between a morally corrupt character who revels in his corruption, and one who hates himself for actions he seems unable to prevent. Douglas walks the line with ease and charm, with self-doubt and fear trembling just under the surface.

Koppelman and co-director Levien have been a screenwriting team for over a decade since their debut, Rounders, but it hasn't been until recently, in their collaborations with Steven Soderbergh, that the two have managed to create truly worthwhile characters (through brief-but-indelible sketches in the underrated Ocean's Thirteen and an impressive series of moments in The Girlfriend Experience). Here, though Koppelman received the sole screenwriting credit, they've certainly created their finest, so even when the plot mechanics stretch themselves to kick Ben when he's down, or they give us an ending that undermines and guts so much of what has come before, it's not enough to tear down the entire structure.

They've also assembled an impressive, formidible supporting cast. Though most of them are playing familiar roles, Jenna Fischer brings more urgency to her performances than we've seen in years on The Office, Jesse Eisenberg hilariously nails key lines and has tremendous chemistry with Douglas, and Susan Sarandon, God bless her, is as heartfelt as ever. The big revelation comes in fantastically-named Imogen Poots - she's given liberty to have a lot of fun with her role, and she embraces it whole-heartedly.

It's not a stick-with-you kind of film. It's not going to make my year-end best. In two years, I'll have to be reminded it exists. But boy am I glad I caught it.

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