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Stray Thoughts: Solitary Man

🎥 I'll be what I am...

Solitary Man is a 2009 film starring Michael Douglas. I saw it shortly after it came out (because I was seeing everything shortly after it came out those days) and even though I only watched it the once, I found myself thinking about it quite a lot. In the last year or so I rented it to see how it stacked up to my memory, and I was pleasantly surprised to find that I still find it quite affecting. Spoilers ahead.

Douglas plays Ben Kalmen, a successful car dealer who, in the opening scene, is talking with his doctor and receiving some "troubling news" about his heart. Fast forward six years, and we find Ben in the throes of a self-indulgent death spiral. Since getting his troubling news his personal and professional life have crumbled due to a series of affairs, bad business decisions, and even outright fraud. He's lost any clout he might have had in the community. He has no friends. The one thing he's got going for him is that he's a talented pick-up artist with a voracious sexual appetite, and he's parlayed that into a relationship with Mary-Louise Parker's Jordan Karsche, who is bankrolling his attempt to get his business back on its feet. Ben agrees to take Jordan's 18-year-old daughter to his visit his alma mater and try to use his alumni status to get her accepted. And if you think you know where this is going, I assure you, things will get much worse than you're imagining.

Solitary Man is a portrait of an asshole who flatly refuses to learn his lessons. No matter how terribly he repeatedly torpedoes his own life, he continues to do whatever he thinks will net him a short-term gain because in his own mind he might die any day, so why worry about the future? It's life's sick joke that he keeps living long enough to reap the consequences of his misguided actions. By the time the opening credits have finished rolling, he's hit what would be a low point for the protagonist of another movie. The only person from his old life who hasn't completely ostracized him is his daughter (Jenna Fischer), from whom he constantly borrows money and to whom he feels the need to relate every sexual exploit because--again--he has no friends. The precipitousness of his downfall is only matched by how pathetic he has become while still thinking of himself as an alpha dog.

By all rights, the movie should not work. The hero is thoroughly unlikeable, and his only "positive" trait is that he can hook up with beautiful women even in his 60s, which plays a bit misogynist--and it's supposed to. Frankly, I don't know if there's an actor other than Douglas who could have pulled it off. The fact that his filmography is riddled with erotic thrillers like Basic Instinct and Fatal Attraction makes him believable as a finely aged heartthrob, and he brings the same actually-sleeze-is-quite-endearing energy to this role that he did as Gordon Gekko in Wall Street. That means the movie can lean super hard into his unflattering behavior without losing the audience completely.

I find this movie fascinating. Thematically, it's almost an argument for Contractualism, the school of ethical philosophy concerned with the question "What do we owe to each other?" Ben would say "Nothing". We owe absolutely nothing to each other. And this attitude takes his already bad life and makes it get worse and worse. And in fact, at the end of the film when Ben is forced to confront his actions, it's still unclear whether he actually internalizes anything. When he's given a choice between trying to redeem himself and make amends with his family or pursuing some anonymous attractive young woman who just walked by, you genuinely don't know what he's going to do.

In a way, this is an inversion of one of my favorite hero archetypes: the toxic protagonist who gains self-awareness. It's a redemptive arc in which the hero realizes he (and it's always a he) is actually hurting the people he loves, but is incapable of changing, so he abandons them in order to protect them. The best example of this is Sutter Keely in The Spectacular Now (the book, not the movie, which changes the ending a bit). There's something I find really interesting about the type of hero whose sacrifice is to give up the person they love because they know that they would destroy them. It's backwards and cowardly but feels very honest. This is the type of hero who has grown and matured, but remains broken out of sheer stubbornness. Ben is that, but not. He already had self-awareness. He's been making the conscious choice to disregard others for years now. Furthermore, there's no one for him to abandon, because everyone has already given up on him.

So yeah, this is a movie that admire a lot. It manages to tell a moving story with an unlikeable character and give him a compelling journey without ever trying to redeem him. It's amazing that it works. And while I would never try to tell a story that way, I love that someone did and, by and large, succeeded.

That's what I think, anyway,



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