Whether it's modeling a character on a specific movie star “type” or penning a particular turn of phrase in such a way that you can only hear one select performer delivering the line, most film scribes admit – at least to some extent – to mentally casting the movie they're writing while they work.
And that's exactly what Girlfriend Experience screenwriter Brian Koppelman did for Michael Douglas in crafting a tailor made role that played into the Oscar winner's considerable strengths so well that even actress Jenna Fischer imagined Douglas in the part during her first read through, without knowing that the man had not only Koppelman's muse for the script but had also committed to Solitary Man.
Yet this absolutely certainty and ease with which Douglas slides right into another smooth talking, amoral “Prince of Darkness” style role as successful east coast car salesman Ben Kalmen who seduces everything in a skirt and nearly goes to prison for cooking the books following a health scare serves as the film's double edged sword.
On the one hand, Douglas' charisma as the embodiment of the same “greed is good,” serial cheater he portrayed in his signature roles makes him the natural choice for a film that challenges viewers to – if not care about such a lying sleazebag – then at the very least understand what makes him tick during its succinct running time.
Yes, predictably, he's uniformly excellent in the smartly written ensemble dramedy. Yet in the same token, because we've seen Douglas play a variation of this role for more than twenty years, he's also similarly unchallenged by the material, thereby making what could've been a dark yet fresh spin on the mid-life crisis feel slightly uninspired and stale all because he's just a little too “expected” in the role.
In this respect, Solitary Man reminds me of last year's Oscar winners The Blind Side and Crazy Heart. For despite the aforementioned works being solidly constructed offerings with assured star turns to anchor the material, ultimately they're just a little too “safe” to truly stand out.
Had Liam Neeson, Kevin Costner or Tom Hanks been tapped against type to play Solitary's Ben Kalmen, suddenly the personification of a man who lies to you with a smile and somehow makes you think that sleeping with him to “get” something new “out of the transaction” as he phrases it was in fact your idea, would've seemed that much more unsettling and compulsively watchable.
However, this shouldn't take anything away from the power of Michael Douglas who easily commands our attention in one of his finest roles since Wonder Boys and Traffic.
In fact, seeing him visit a college campus where he becomes a sort of Roger Dodger influenced version of his Wonder character, Grady Tripp has a nice nostalgic quality about it for Douglas fans so that he's able to embrace not just his quintessential scoundrel but another Oscar worthy turn as well.
This being said, however, admittedly some of the plot contrivances do feel a little too forced as we never quite buy the idea that his health scare – especially considering that he never gets a second test or finds out exactly what's wrong – is the thing that leads him to take a Falling Down detour in life as he goes off the rails.
Essentially playing like a greatest hits mix of his film work in the past, the competent but underwhelming Solitary pairs him up with both his old friend Danny DeVito in a tender turn that ensures us that even if Ben can't be redeemed then he was at least once worthy of such a loyal ally, as well as giving film lovers the opportunity to see Douglas opposite Susan Sarandon for the first time ever.
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FTC Disclosure: Per standard professional practice, I received a review copy of this title in order to evaluate it for my readers, which had no impact whatsoever on whether or not it received a favorable or unfavorable critique.