If an early ‘90s revival is imminent, Michael Douglas’s star turn in the sour dramedy Solitary Man heralds the return of that era’s skeeviest big-screen persona. No longer sufficiently youthful to be the iconic middle-aged lecher icon of 20 years past, the 65-year-old Douglas adapts the horndog traits of his box-office heyday to inhabit the pervily insatiable Ben Kalmen, a disgraced car-sales magnate—“an admitted grifter”—who narrowly avoided prison after cooking his books, and now spends his days working the connections of a well-heeled girlfriend (Mary-Louise Parker in an ugly bit role) to open a new dealership, and his nights bedding every Upper West Side woman under 40 who’ll meet his roving eye. (Kalmen barks at his long-suffering daughter not to call him “Dad” in public lest she scare the ladies away from his overripe carcass.)
Directors Brian Koppelman and David Levien, working from Koppelman’s screenplay, explored the male drive for NSA sex to far more original ends in scripting Steven Soderbergh’s The Girlfriend Experience. Here they flatter Douglas with “daring” morning-after shots of his pasty, aging form awash in existential torpor and pitiless sunlight, while still giving him the Hollywood-lead privilege of looking good in hot-shit black suits, with his gray wavy coif and ramrod posture. Brandishing the insinuating tactical bullying of Gordon Gekko, Kalmen’s go-to line for teenage targets is, regarding their inexperienced collegiate lovers, “What are you getting out of the transaction?”
This cocky dinosaur spirals downward after a trip with his girlfriend’s daughter (Imogen Poots) to her college interview—it’s his alma mater, and they haven’t yet stripped his name from the library—turns inevitably into a sporting fuck. “I took care of the Daddy Thing, and I didn’t even know I had one,” the seduced gamin sasses Kalmen before dealing a mortal blow to his prospects with both Mom and his car-dealership comeback. Poots is the only member of the large supporting cast who thrives opposite Douglas’s preening, though Jenna Fischer brings her martyr’s exasperation intact from The Office to the long sighs of Kalmen’s harried daughter, and Danny DeVito underplays (for him) an extended cameo as the antihero’s deli-owning former classmate. As a would-be idolater of the strutting egotist’s ways with women, Jesse Eisenberg’s undergrad Woody Allen shtick is so generic he barely registers.
Solitary Man occasionally edges toward the tone of an unflinching character study of a shitheel, more common to American literature than commercial filmmaking. Since Douglas’s last first-rate role was the dissolute prof in the adaptation of Michael Chabon’s Wonder Boys, inhabiting a Roth- or Bellow-style cad seems fully within his grasp. But the film’s framing conceit is that Kalmen’s sybaritic lifestyle is just a panicked reaction to a diagnosed cardiac murmur, a sad camouflage of mortal terror. Add Susan Sarandon, doing her Earth Mother-lite thing as his blithe ex-wife, and Douglas’s recurring gazes at the campus quad bench where they met foretells a reassuring last reel (once Koppelman’s script-by-numbers has meted out a predictable and overdue revenge beating to the reckless lothario). The jokes aren’t good enough and Douglas’s near-perfect score in bagging his quarry isn’t credible; the film curdles into a self-satisfied comeuppance fable that possesses the same embarrassing chutzpah as the martini-wielding seducer it affectionately dotes on.