|BACK TO SCHOOL: Jesse Eisenberg and Michael Douglas, big men on campus.|
“You call me an asshole, I’m gonna earn it!” declares Michael Douglas in his new drama, and as we all know, Michael Douglas is a big earner. His character, Ben Kalmen, is a smooth-talking gent of 60. Not too long ago he had a loving wife, an empire of car dealerships, and a library named after him at his alma mater. But now he’s become the kind of guy who ends up trolling that alma mater for barely legal babes. And it all stems from a doctor’s prognosis he didn’t want to hear. Fearless portrait of male insecurity, or elderly movie star grasping for relevance? Tough call. It’s Gordon Gekko: The Twilight Years, and the spectacle will repeat itself a few months from now, when Douglas and Oliver Stone release their sequel to Wall Street.
In case you couldn’t tell, the ’80s are back. One by one, Hollywood hopefuls of the Reagan era show up for big-screen rehab, and make sundry efforts to Just Say No. We got Bad Lieutenant Nicolas Cage, brandishing his lucky crack pipe. Jeff Bridges soaked his Crazy Heart in a whiskey marinade. And now Michael Douglas returns, insisting, to pathetic effect, that Greed Is Good.
We’re expected to marvel at Douglas’ leathery age, but thankfully, he’s not putting on a one-man show here. Solitary Man is more like a failed intervention, with Ben expending the good will of family and colleagues alike. He finds rare sympathy from his bemused ex-wife, Susan Sarandon, and his neglected old friend Danny DeVito. People in the audience cooed with delight at the appearance of DeVito, and they did the same for young Jesse Eisenberg, who shuffles up to give Ben a tour of his old college grounds. It may be because of the charming way in which Eisenberg initiates a handshake, with self-confidence less practiced than Ben’s, and perhaps also because the movie is starved for human warmth.
The filmmakers are Brian Koppelman and David Levien, and they smartly avoid sugarcoating Ben’s decline and fall. But they also seem to share their antihero’s delusions of chutzpah, to the point that they excuse him from showing more than a hint of pain or pleasure. Is robbing the cradle really this joyless an exercise? The pair is too cool to write anything but snippy arguments, and they film everything in stagey long takes and glum blue tones. Because, you see, it’s autumn, and winter is coming. I’m calling this movie an asshole, and I wish it really earned it. R.