Douglas a fine scoundrel in ‘Solitary Man’ 

In an environment starved for sharp, sophisticated dark comedy, “Solitary Man” is a nifty, wicked surprise.

Michael Douglas playing a selfish, greedy, felonious, womanizing rogue may hardly seem a novel proposition, but smart, unsentimental, character-focused filmmaking by Brian Koppelman and David Levien and a compatibly tuned dynamic performance by the actor have produced a fresh mini-sizzler about the baser aspects of human behavior, especially those of the male late-midlife kind.

The film is the sophomore directorial collaboration of Koppelman and Levien (following “Knockaround Guys”), whose scale is modest and whose tone contains an audience-friendly brand of cynicism as their hardboiled protagonist gets a shakeup. Picture a Jason Reitman comedy without the soft centers.

Written by Koppelman, the story gives us Ben Kalmen (played by Douglas), a fast-talking 60ish former Manhattan car dealer who, 6½ years ago, jolted by a doctor’s EKG warning, began tailspinning.

Fiscal fraud and compulsive philandering destroyed his thriving business and faithful marriage. Broke, divorced, and tending to view every barely legal woman as a conquest who can block the aging process, Ben now aches for his former glory.

His attempted-comeback trail, a string of botched opportunities, forms the thrust of the story.

Ben’s ex-wife, Nancy (Susan Sarandon), has long been fed up with Ben, and their daughter, Susan (Jenna Fischer), whose young son’s birthday party Ben misses because he’s bedding one of her friends, is starting to feel likewise.

A worse indiscretion involves Allyson (Imogen Poots), the college-age daughter of Ben’s well-connected girlfriend, Jordan (Mary-Louise Parker). Furious, Jordan uses her associations to ruin Ben’s chances for a dealership contract.

Desperate, Ben gets a job at the deli run by old pal Jimmy (Danny DeVito). He becomes a seduction mentor of sorts to a woman-shy college kid (Jesse Eisenberg), then hits on the young man’s new girlfriend (Olivia Thirlby).

The film isn’t as edgy or as penetrating as it seems to think, and it contains a serious misfire. The use of the EKG to explain Ben’s nosedive is unnecessary and plays like a sympathy device.

But Koppelman and Levien, triumphing by letting their characters drive the story instead of swamping them with contrivances, overall deliver a sharp tale of mortality panic and an entertaining look at a scoundrel at work.

Douglas aces such material. Operating in dark-comic mode, he agilely creates an unredeemably despicable protagonist with just enough humanity to keep us invested. It’s keen, fresh acting that never feels like a greatest-hits turn or a warm-up show for his upcoming “Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps.”

The supporting characters, meanwhile, are a nicely variegated bunch, with DeVito’s small-town Jimmy particularly fine.

Solitary Man

Three stars

Starring Michael Douglas, Mary-Louise Parker, Jenna Fischer, Susan Sarandon
Written by Brian Koppelman
Directed by Brian Koppelman, David Levien
Rated R
Running time 1 hour 30 minutes

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Staff Report

Staff Report

A daily newspaper covering San Francisco, San Mateo County and serving Alameda, Marin and Santa Clara counties.
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