The Age of Grief

pk 13 The Age of Grief

Age is not only the enemy of ballet dancers, opera singers and athletes. It takes an exacting toll on film stars, too. For actors over 50, it’s not as easy to keep a career going as it was in the days of Clark Gable, Gary Cooper and Cary Grant. Thank God Michael Douglas has built up some negotiating power. He can afford to wait for the good stuff to come along. The older he gets, the more serious and relevant the roles-and the more he looks like his father. Solitary Man is so sad that its chances of achieving commercial-hit status are deeply uncertain, but it’s the best thing he’s done since Wall Street and Wonder Boys.

Solitary Man comes on the heels of last year’s A Serious Man and A Single Man, so it’s small wonder that confusion reigns. But this film, co-directed by David Levien and Brian Koppelman (who also wrote the screenplay), is the best of the three. When it premiered last September in Toronto, the program book called it a cautionary tale about “an alpha male led astray by his greed and his zipper.” (Sounds like a politician, for sure.) But Mr. Douglas’ Ben Kalmen emerges more three-dimensional than that. He’s a rat for the full 90-minute running time, but perversely fascinating. Once the charming and popular king of the used-car dealers and ruler of a vast empire of franchises that made him a TV celebrity and landed him on the cover of Forbes, he had a beautiful and loyal wife who was once his college sweetheart (Susan Sarandon); an adoring daughter (Jenna Fischer); a lush Manhattan lifestyle; and enough money to endow a Boston university with a state-of-the-art library. Then he got caught in an illegal scam and spent all of his money trying to stay out of jail, wrecking his marriage and destroying his reputation in the bargain. Now with a grim heart condition, living on aspirin, he faces a midlife crisis trying to jump-start his life with his old friends and colleagues, who have turned their backs on him. On the verge of closing a deal that will put him back in business, financed by his new squeeze (Mary Louise Parker)-a tough, rich divorcée with connections to Wall Street and the mob-he recklessly sleeps with her daughter. There goes the new car dealership, as well as his future hope. He even gets beaten to a pulp by her hired thugs and lands in the hospital.

Solitary Man comes on the heels of last year’s A Serious Man and A Single Man, so it’s small wonder that confusion reigns. But this film, co-directed by David Levien and Brian Koppelman (who also wrote the screenplay), is the best of the three.

Unable to get his groove back and terrified of growing old, Ben defines his life at 60 by how many women he can take to bed, carelessly ignoring his ex-wife, who still has a warm spot in her heart for him. His daughter, who is tired of lending him money to keep him aloft, finally cuts him off from seeing his own grandson. He can’t get a bank loan because he has no collateral, and after his years of experience, he’s burned so many bridges that even when he swallows his pride, no other dealer will offer him a sales position. As his options run out, he gets evicted, and even though he no longer believes in friendship, he accepts some demeaning job behind the counter of a delicatessen owned by an old college acquaintance (Danny DeVito), who only wants to help. At the end of his rope, he is extended a hand where he least expects it, but it’s uncertain whether he’ll accept it. He rises from a park bench after hitting rock bottom while his ex-wife waits in a parked car at the curb, but a shapely skirt passes, distracting him. It’s like Tom Hanks at the crossroads in the highway at the end of Castaway. You don’t know which direction he’ll take.