Ben (Michael Douglas) and ex-wife Nancy (Susan Sarandon) on the campus bench where they first met.
Directed by Brian Koppelman and David Levien
Written by Brian Koppelman
Starring Michael Douglas, Susan Sarandon, Danny DeVito, Jenna Fischer, Jessie Eisenberg, Mary-Louise Parker, and Imogen Poots
Coming across as a potent combination of Rabbit at Rest and Wonder Boys, Solitary Man explores, among other things, the combustion that can occur when deteriorating, experienced middle age meets beautiful, inexperienced youth. “You can’t cheat death,” his ex-wife, Nancy, tells the 60ish Ben (played by Michael Douglas, appropriately craggy and sexy, who also starred in Wonder Boys). But once his doctor finds a worrisome heart abnormality, Ben does try, by cheating—spectacularly—in both his marriage and his business. A former Forbes cover boy, Ben loses it all by perpetrating a scam in his auto dealership empire (ironically, he’s touted himself as “New York’s honest car dealer”). He’s reduced to asking not only Nancy (the ever lovely Susan Sarandon)—with whom he’s on good terms, perhaps because she’s found her own success in real estate—for the occasional “loan,” but also their daughter (Jenna Fischer, here a homemaker out of The Office), whose lawyer husband is onto Ben’s manipulative tricks.
Ben thinks he’s found a solid way out of his financial predicament, however, and of course it takes the form of a woman: his girlfriend (on whom he also constantly runs around), played icily by Mary-Louise Parker, whose powerful father can get Ben restarted. But first, a favor: she asks Ben to accompany her 18-year-old daughter (Imogen Poots, in a role right out of Gossip Girl) to his alma mater and use his influence there on her behalf; after all, the library’s named after him, a reminder of radically better days. Once they’ve arrived, Ben’s cockiness—he engages in a dangerous conversation about sex with the girl and takes a nerdy sophomore (Jesse Eisenberg) under his broken wing—leads to events that cause his new foundation to crumble.
The movie’s title—it opens with Johnny Cash’s cover of the Neil Diamond song—could be a joke, given Ben’s epic womanizing. But this is a serious film that knows that this man—despite his supportive ex-wife, loving (though reaching her limits) daughter, adoring grandson, and loyal friend (Danny DeVito as a campus café owner)—is alone, because of his actions and, ultimately, because we all are. Looking at mortality, and one man’s understandable but impossible flight from it, in the way it does, Solitary Man could have been depressing. Instead, because it also uncovers the richness and complexity of life, it’s uplifting.