It’s been nine years since Michael Douglas has made a really good movie. Nine years — yup — it was in 2000 that “Wonder Boys” and “Traffic” were released. And then, well, it wasn’t such a good decade, except that he married Catherine Zeta-Jones and she won an Oscar for “Chicago.”
But all it takes is a good script, as it turns out, and people who are paying attention, to breathe life into a great movie star’s career. Brian Koppelman wrote “Solitary Man” and directed it with his partner David Levien. They’re the same duo who resurrected “Ocean’s 13″ after “12″ was an unlucky number, and have lots of other good credits. After seeing “Solitary Man” open last night in Toronto, I think Douglas should be sending them a case of Champagne.
“Solitary Man” is no easy film with easy answers. It’s funny and it’s tragic, but it’s beautifully written, directed and acted. Douglas’ Ben is an irredeemable womanizer who had it all: a Harvard education, millions of dollars, and a thriving BMW business, a wonderful family and friends. And then a mid-life crisis causes him to throw it all away, operatically, sensationally and ferociously. It’s a wonder anyone’s talking to him. Actually, few are.
Ben is surrounded by potential support from a doting daughter (Jenna Fischer, from “The Office,” is a total revelation — not the monotone Pam we’ve come to know), ex-wife (Susan Sarandon — splendid as always), best friend (a philosphical Danny DeVito), protege (Jesse Eisenberg), Mary-Louise Parker (ex-girlfriend). But it doesn’t matter. He’s determind to trash everyone’s lives.
“Solitary Man” has echoes of “Shoot the Moon,” “The Heartbreak Kid,” a little “Roger Dodger” and “Californication” — just to name a few influences. But it’s also its own success, with lovely, textured dialogue and a determination never to let Ben off the hook. Michael Douglas hasn’t looked or sounded this good since “Wonder Boys” (a personal favorite of mine). Indeed, in some angles he’s really starting to look a lot like his dad, Kirk Douglas. And you know he’s bringing a lot of himself to the role of Ben. At the Q&A after the screening, Koppelman said, “Most people who read the script thought this was the story of Gordon Gecko, or Michael Douglas. They were the only two people who could play the part.”
There’s a lot of buzz about Douglas reprising his Gecko role in “Wall Street 2″ this fall. This is tricky, because it could turn out to be self-parody. We’ll see. But “Solitary Man” is fresh and original, a total surprise from left field. It’s an indie release, so it needs a distributor. But there’s a best actor nomination in there for Douglas and an original screenplay nomination for Koppelman, at the very least. And it was nice to hear Johnny Cash singing Neil Diamond’s “Solitary Man.”
PS: The film is produced by Steven Soderbergh, who came to cheer Douglas on, as did Matt Damon and wife Lucia.