There’s enough material for three movies in Brian Koppelman and David Levien’s Solitary Man, but only two of those movies are any good. The not-so-good one—the one that dominates—is the story of a rogue angling for a renaissance. Michael Douglas plays a disgraced, divorced car dealer, trying to get his business back in order while scoring with every young lady in his immediate vicinity. This is the fussy, script-driven Solitary Man: an overwritten drama stuffed with too many stars (including Susan Sarandon as Douglas’ wife, Jenna Fischer as his daughter, Danny DeVito as his old friend, and Mary-Louise Parker as his long-suffering lover), and structured so that nearly every scene reveals bits of Douglas’ backstory as obliquely as possible. Handled well, this approach to narrative can be effective—more show than tell, just like the seminars preach—but when it’s obvious what’s going on, the gears grind audibly.
The second movie nestled within Solitary Man—the one that doesn’t show up often enough—is about a man of rare eloquence and honesty, sharing his views on salesmanship and sex with anyone who’ll listen. The film opens with Douglas being told about an irregularity on his EKG, which he decides not to investigate, choosing instead to live his life as though he could die at any moment. He shows a college student (Jesse Eisenberg) the ropes of romance, then tries to steal the kid’s girlfriend. He tries to swing big business deals in spite of his bad reputation. He speaks his mind and wields his expertise, and he’s fun to watch even as he’s driving away everyone he ever loved.
Which brings us to the third movie—the one that balances the problems of the first. This is Solitary Man the star vehicle, offering Douglas in layered charmer mode, fully aware that his lack of impulse control is sabotaging his attempts at a career comeback (meant to be financed by Parker) as well as his shaky family ties, yet unable to stop himself from seizing every available opportunity. For the most part, A Solitary Man is a needlessly sly movie about the kind of problems that preoccupy people in show business—becoming sexually undesirable, not spending enough time with the kids, etc.—but Douglas makes all the contrivances feel like universal, soul-testing dilemmas. He encourages the audience to lean in and watch him close, to pick up a few tips on how to look cool while melting down.