Weekend Movies: Solitary Man opens at the Kentucky
(along with Girl Who Played with Fire)
by Raj Ranade
The opening credits of Solitary Man are set to a cover of the song “Solitary Man” by Johnny Cash, which is the kind of ominous decision that suggest many further on-the-nose groaners are on the way (and yes, he is dressed all in black). The trailer certainly doesn’t help matters – it introduces Ben Kalmen (Michael Douglas) as a once-successful family man turned impoverished loathsome lothario and points to a movie that will go through the typically trite rumba of reconciliation.
But the lowest-common-denominator marketing practices of studios can be deceiving. Solitary Man traffics in clichéd plot elements, but it laces them with strychnine – what was sold as a fuzzy redemption song is more of a raw screed. When a heart test suggests his time on earth is limited, Ben decides to live his life to the fullest – which, in his way of thinking, means cheating on his wife every day and embezzling like there’s no tomorrow. When a shy college student (Jesse Eisenberg) needs help talking to girls, the experienced ladies’ man steps in – only to spout advice based on a vile worldview populated only by conquests and rivals. When a high school teen with mommy issues is distraught, Ben consoles her – and then beds her.
Solitary Man more or less goes where you’d expect it to, but the trip is much nastier than you’d think, and I appreciated the uncommon sting that directors Brian Koppelman and David Levien bring to this character study/skewer. The most important contribution comes from Douglas himself. It isn’t a huge stretch to suggest that the has-been Ben’s plight rang close to home for Douglas, who hasn’t been in an unequivocally good movie since 2000’s Traffic.
I don’t know that Solitary Man qualifies as a comeback – Douglas has always specialized in sleazeball roles like his Oscar winning performance as Gordon Gekko in “Wall Street” (surprise, surprise – Douglas reprises that role this year in the movie’s September sequel). But a talented actor working in his comfort zone is nothing to sniff at, and Douglas has the ability to inspire awe at both his alpha-male confidence and his lounge-lizard audacity. Solitary Man can have a vanity project feel, given that an impressive cast (Susan Sarandon, Mary Louise Parker, Jenna Fischer, Danny DeVito) are in the movie primarily to express exasperation at Ben’s misconduct. But Douglas keeps you watching with a magnetic performance – one that attracts and repels in almost equal measure.
Given that the rest of the week’s releases have either been ably covered elsewhere on this site (The Girl Who Played With Fire ); seem to be flimsy extensions of sitcom premises (The Switch), or are just fundamentally self-explanatory (Piranha 3-D), here’s a look at one of the most interesting DVD releases of the week.
Korean cinema has taken the world film festival scene by storm over the past decade, thanks to its focus on stylish action, its gleeful mingling of vastly different genres, and its delightful unpredictability. Case in point: The Good, The Bad, the Weird, the action-comedy-steampunk-spaghetti-western from director Kim Ji-woon.
Borrowing heavily from Sergio Leone’s classic western The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly, Weird similarly focuses on the struggle for a treasure map between a Manchurian John Wayne, a Gucci-clad desert assassin, and an, uh, weird guy. Kim is less interested in his plot, however, than he is in staging action spectacle more electrifying than anything in the multiplexes this summer. Kim’s approach to action is refreshing, involving minimal amounts of CGI and maximal amounts of inventive fight choreography and all-consuming ingenuity. The opening train robbery features cowboys dexterously twirling revolvers and rifles like nunchucks, a small-town gunfight in the middle combines acrobatic wire work with a strangely effective (and hilarious) use of a deep-sea diving helmet, and the climactic 20-minute chase intermingles horses, motorcycles, trucks, machine guns, samurais, and artillery fire.
If it all sounds like a bit much, it occasionally can be, but Kim keeps the movie sprinting along nimbly for the most part with his graceful and light-hearted arrangement of action, and as “The Weird, “Korean star Song Kang-Ho is the comic anchor of the film. The final scene may lack some of the pop of the preceding hours, but it’s understandable and forgivable – Kim, after all, likely exhausted enough gunpowder for a small country on the way there.