With his commanding voice and air of slick self-assurance -- to say nothing of his birthright as the son of Spartacus -- Michael Douglas has always played a leader: American president, titan of Wall Street, swarthy adventurer through jungles and bedrooms alike.
Though age hasn't diminished Douglas' magnetism, it has lately transformed him into a different kind of leader, one more likely to lead his young charges off a cliff. First he was a pot-addled college professor in Wonder Boys, giving his creative writing students the sort of sage advice that leads to transfer requests. Then he was the titular loon in King of California -- a recently institutionalized father roping his daughter into a quest to find Spanish treasure buried under a Costco.
As disgraced auto magnate Ben Kalmen in Solitary Man, Douglas continues to hold court for an audience of the young and impressionable -- and even a few grown-ups who should know better -- but only because his character seems incapable of feeling shame. With the trail of destruction he's left behind in his personal and professional lives, any other man would quietly retire and repent their sins, but Ben, forever the used-car salesman, still wants humanity to drive a lemon off the lot.
Put some of Ben's recklessness down to denial: When his doctor finds his EKG results "troubling," he simply flees from the office and lives out the remainder of his life as if it'll end any minute from now. Still the skirt-chasing tomcat he was when he cheated on his now ex-wife (Susan Sarandon), Ben insists that his grown daughter (The Office's Jenna Fischer) and her son don't call him "dad" or "grandpa," for fear it might drive away 20-somethings. His current relationship, with a younger (but still too old) woman played by Mary-Louise Parker, is useful mostly for her connections to a zoning board that might approve his bid for a new dealership, despite his record for fraud. Romantically, her 18-year-old daughter (Imogen Poots) is really more his speed.
If all this sounds like the setup for a Bastard's Redemption tale, that's more or less what writer/co-director Brian Koppelman has in mind, but he takes the scenic route. Koppelman and co-director David Levien -- longtime screenwriting partners with credits that include Rounders, Ocean's Thirteen and The Girlfriend Experience -- compress several movies' worth of subplots into 90 minutes, then cast it to the gills; in addition to Sarandon, Fischer and Parker, there are parts for Jesse Eisenberg and Danny DeVito, as well as a blink-or-you'll-miss-it turn for current "It" girl Olivia Thirlby. Between the storytelling busyness and the cavalcade of stars, whatever thesis Koppelman had in mind sometimes gets drowned out.
Still, the center holds. No matter how badly Ben misbehaves, Douglas continues to turn our sympathies in his direction, making us as eager as his family, friends and former lovers to give him that second, third or fourth chance to set things right.
And as much as Ben's actions isolate him, he's not without hard-won insight. The best scenes in Solitary Man find Douglas at his most charming, dispensing nuggets of wisdom to whomever will listen. His may not be an altogether honorable life, but it's a life in full.