Over the past few decades, salesman Ben Kalmen (Michael Douglas) sold a lot of cars, brokered a lot of shaky business deals and engaged in a lot of infidelity. He also managed to sell himself on the idea that he's a far younger and wealthier man than the bottomed-out 60-year-old staring back at him in the mirror. Once, he even sold himself on the idea that simply avoiding doctors would make his heart problems go away.
Solitary Man is almost Shakespearean in its themes; the idea that a man can have—and lose—it all is certainly the kind of tragedy the Bard knew well, and the theme is just as prevalent today. Look at former Enron CEO Jeff Skilling, serving one hell of a sentence in federal prison, or Bernie Madoff, who's doing the same thing.
For all of the wrong things he did, Kalmen's punishment is not prison, but rather the world he knows so well, a world that has grown tired of his pitches or has simply moved on without him.
Douglas is in fine form as the kind of character he has perfected. (His Gordon Gekko redux, Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps, opens this fall.) Kalmen is a smooth-talker, and it even works some of the time, provided he's not engaging someone who knows him. He lost all of his dealerships after Kalmen was caught lying about the number of cars he had on each lot so he could charge more money for the ones he did have. He lost his bank's support; then he lost his wife (Susan Sarandon) after all of the infidelity. And Kalmen might lose his grandson, too, if he doesn't get his act together.
That's easier said than done, of course, because Kalmen can sell himself on anything, except, it seems, repercussions. His one shot at career redemption hangs on his relationship with a well-to-do divorcee (Mary-Louise Parker). Her daughter, Allyson (Imogen Poots), is hoping to attend college in Boston, at the same institution Kalmen attended and has assisted financially over the years. It really shouldn't be that difficult to look the other way when Allyson is around, beautiful though she is. After all, the downside is huge, and he's three times her age. But Ben likes those odds.
Scarlett Johansson has done nothing much to build on the potential she displayed in Lost in Translation, and here comes Imogen Poots, a British export with a soul far older than her 20 years, who seems capable of taking on the radiant, moody Lolita mantle that Johansson has left behind. Allyson is only a part of Kalmen's downward spiral, but she's the only influence that ever seems to get to him, making him lose his cool all over the place.
Douglas is equally impressive as the boor with a compulsion for compulsion. Kalmen is smart enough to understand his circumstances. Watch his reaction in the film's opening scene, when he learns the doctor doesn't like his EKG results; watch again while he silently evaluates his lot in life from a dingy one-bedroom apartment loaded with expensive modern furniture. But in his quest to see how far down he can go, Kalmen learns he's nearly a bottomless pit.
Astonishingly, as transparent of a son-of-a-bitch as Ben Kalmen is, Douglas has made him a very real, likable character. Even those around him, the ones burned by him time and again, probably feel the same way. Maybe he's not so solitary after all.