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Short Takes: Solitary Man

(Brian Koppelman & David Levien, U.S., 2009)

It’s not just the best role he’s had in years, it’s the kind of bravura turn (as an eerily lifelike character) that could sum up a career: Ben Kalmen (a fiftysomething cad played by the 65-year-old Michael Douglas) finds himself in the midst of the inevitable late-life meltdown.

Ben is a frisky bastard, making the proverbial moves and screwing up an already provisional postmarital relationship in its early stages. He thereby embarks upon a voyage of doubt-riddled rediscovery. The details of his predicament include: a magnanimous ex-wife (Susan Sarandon), a hard-hearted and quickly estranged paramour (Mary-Louise Parker), said paramour’s fatally alluring college-bound daughter (Imogen Poots), and an old school-buddy-cum-sage (Danny DeVito). In addition to the moral traps he sets for himself, Ben must also cope with the recent diagnosis of a life-threatening medical condition.

The film begins and ends with scenes of acute existential reflection, a state actors rarely convey convincingly—least of all in a contemporary American film. The first involves the world turning silent as Ben, after receiving the bad news from his doctor, contemplates his mortality. The second, occurring in the final frames, relates to “the choice” Ben faces. The breathless ambiguity of that small final moment is the kind of thing that might give pause to such hardcore narrative ethicists as Søren Kierkegaard and Stanley Cavell—and maybe even Gordon Gekko.