Thursday, May 20, 2010

In Theaters: "Solitary Man"

As screenwriters, Brian Koppelman and David Levien are names I’m always happy to see in the credits; their filmography includes the terrific Rounders and Soderbergh’s Ocean’s 13 and The Girlfriend Experience. But something goes awry when they move into the director’s chair; their debut effort was the imminently forgettable Knockaround Guys, and now we have their second picture, Solitary Man, which is full of good intentions, great scenes, and excellent performances, but can’t assemble its elements into anything consistent.

It begins “about six and a half years ago,” as Ben Kalmen (Michael Douglas) is a man on top; he owns several BMW dealerships, has a full and happy family, and so on. We meet him as he’s getting the news that something unfortunate has come up on his EKG, and his doctor would like to run some more tests. Jump to the present, and oh how the mighty have fallen; Ben lost his entire auto empire after a fraud scandal, his marriage is over, he’s broke, and his only pleasure seems to come from random hook-ups with women half his age (or less). He could be on the verge of bouncing back; his current girlfriend (Mary-Louise Parker) is well-connected and could help get him back in the car game. All she needs him to do is take her daughter Allyson to his alma matter and put in a good word with the dean. He manages to find a way to screw it up.

From the trailers, this trip appears to be a much bigger chunk of the film than it turns out to be; we’re all settled in to soak up broken, horny Ben’s collegiate adventures, and he even gets a foil—reliable old Jesse Eisenberg, as his uptight student guide Cheston. Ben trots out the wise, knowing man-of-the-world act, telling the young man that his campus is “nothing but possibilities,” and informing him that “some day, you’re gonna be my age. You do not want to regret a night like this.” The picture seems to be teeing up to be a kind of cross between Douglas’ lost-in-academia masterpiece Wonder Boys and Eisenberg’s lessons-in-love debut Roger Dodger. But we don’t get that story—it goes off on a different thread, though when Ben returns to the school later in the film, there’s all this talk of how much Cheston looks up to him. Based on what? The five minutes they spent together?

The whole movie is like that; there are promising scenes and intriguing ideas, but they’re all undercooked and smashed together to fight for their share of the film’s slender 90 minutes. It tries to do so much in so little time that it feels like scenes are missing, and the scenes that are there aren’t fluid or fleshed out—they can’t get smoothly from point A to point B, and the expositional dialogue is forced. They hit the point and push on without much texture or flavor, resulting in a series of short scenes that feels more like a filmed outline. As a result, it comes off a bit too constructed, and as an audience member, you can see the strings they’re working.

But everyone in it is so good—Douglas does this kind of role better than anyone, and he and Sarandon are great together (it looks, for a minute, like their snappy banter is going to take center-stage, but the movie doesn’t go in that direction either). There’s not enough Mary-Louise Parker, but she works what she gets; same goes for valuable bit players Richard Schiff and an unbilled Olivia Thirlby, though Jenna Fischer can’t negotiate her role into anything more than a story convenience. Perhaps the most interesting performance in the film is that of a relative newcomer, the unfortunately-named Imogen Poots, who invests daughter Allyson with a sharp unpredictability—she’s got a nicely zizzy quality and sinful disposition that makes the moment when Ben turns from likable rogue to self-destructive asshole almost work.

And it gives us a grin to see old friends Douglas and Danny DeVito sharing the screen again. The picture wisely takes advantage of their history, particularly in the film’s best scene, a quiet front porch conversation at Ben’s lowest moment, as he laments his fall from the cover of Forbes magazine, and all the friends he forgot along the way. “If it means anything,” his buddy tells him, “when you were on the cover of Forbes magazine, I was on the cover of Forbes magazine. I saved it and everything.” It’s a short but effective scene that gets at something real and true about long-term friendship.

There are a number of good moments like that one (I particularly liked how Ben plays video games with his grandson and critiques his “short-term strategy”), but unfortunately, Solitary Man is a movie of good moments that never gel. This is the first film that Koppelman’s written without Levien (though they co-direct), and perhaps he needed his partner’s feedback at the writing stage; whatever the reason, they don’t bring it off. There’s so many reasons to like it—it’s a very likable picture—but it never quite gets its act together.

"Solitary Man" opens Friday, May 21 in limited release.

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