Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Solitary Man: The Crucible of Michael Douglas

Glenn Close and Michael Douglas in Fatal Attraction.

For most of his movie career, Michael Douglas has built his box office success as the everyman who always gets his way – even when he loses. Whether he's playing a financial sleaze in Wall Street (1987), or the cocky adventurer in Romancing the Stone (1984), Douglas always finds a way to lure the audience to his side. But it's not because he has the suave romantic allure of an Errol Flynn, or that he plays creepy in the appealingly baroque style of James Woods, or performs in the high-wire theatrics of Nicolas Cage. Douglas builds his appeal by turning the everyman into a solitary man. His pictures almost always feature him as the sharp cookie who has everything, a loving family in Fatal Attraction (1987) and Disclosure (1994), or the financial world at his beck and call in Wall Street, but somebody is always out to take it all away. Even though he has put the wheels in motion towards his own destruction, he becomes exonerated as the victim of forces beyond his control. Perhaps that's the key to the appeal of these movies; the mass audience is never asked to wonder what Michael Douglas has done to earn all this grief.

In the terms of Michael Douglas's hit films, it doesn't seem to matter whether he might have set his own trap when he's stalked by the aggrieved lover (Glenn Close) that he indifferently dumps in Fatal Attraction. The question is never raised as to whether he unconsciously invites the sexual harassment suit from the former lover (Demi Moore) he spurns in Disclosure. The kinky sex drive he possesses in the swank noir Basic Instinct (1992) isn't even considered a character flaw that would turn most male characters into driven predators. In the end, Michael Douglas is the lone victim of everyone one else's hang-ups. Even the guileless Charlie Sheen nails him in Wall Street and it doesn't matter that this ruthless inside trader had it coming – maybe he should have even seen it coming – because Michael Douglas is his own lone man who had to do it his way and that's all that matters.

Tobey Maguire and Michael Douglas in Wonder Boys.
While this characteristic is what clearly defines the means by which he's built a successful career of portraying a vast gallery of male victims, Douglas has occasionally peeked inside the makings of those characters. The trouble is that whenever he does, as in Curtis Hanson's vastly satisfying Wonder Boys (2000), the audience stays home. Douglas plays Grady Tripp, a middle-aged novelist and creative writing professor at an unnamed Pittsburgh university. After making his name with his first novel, he's suffering severe writer's block completing the second. Tripp medicates his depression by continually smoking grass and by sleeping with the university chancellor (Frances McDormand), who is the wife of the chairman of the English department. Grady Tripp is essentially a creative talent in a perpetual state of stasis. Based on Michael Chabon's 1995 novel, Wonder Boys offered Michael Douglas an opportunity to dial down the swagger – and, as a result, he delivers one of his most accessible performances.

Unlike in Fatal Attraction, his dalliances don't make him the prey, or the injured party here. In Wonder Boys, he has to take stock of both his behaviour and his influence. When a talented writing student (Tobey Maguire) looks to him for guidance, Tripp is forced to evaluate the many times he's pissed away the possibilities of happiness and satisfaction. But Douglas doesn't delve into those disappointing episodes with the dull and dogged determination he's portrayed many times before. Instead he supplies a pensive, self-deprecating air of humour that reveals a man whose cleverness has tripped him up (maybe this is why he's aptly named Tripp) and given him a mask of self-pity to hide in. But in Wonder Boys, the mask melts away. The hard lines in his face (which in Fatal Attraction and Wall Street told the audience that he would stand tall against all comers) doesn't reveal defiance, but rather a man putting himself back together again and becoming whole.

Michael Douglas and Jesse Eisenberg in Solitary Man.

His latest film, Solitary Man (2009), which just came out on DVD, is nowhere near as good as Wonder Boys. But it does allow Douglas – more explicitly this time – to tear down the defenses that in the past have made him such an impenetrable star. Co-directed by Brian Koppelman and David Levien, Solitary Man features Douglas as Ben Kalmen, a once successful car dealer who suddenly discovers that he might be mortally ill. But rather than take stock of the life he has built with his attractive and loyal wife (Susan Sarandon) and forge stronger bonds with his daughter Susan (Jenna Fischer) and his grandson, he deliberately destroys his business and romantic credibility. (He even sleeps with his latest girlfriend's 16-year-old daughter.)

Solitary Man tears down Kalmen's walls a little too methodically, but Douglas does get an opportunity to turn the self-righteous smirk that made him a star into a damaging scar. When he tutors a young inexperienced college kid (the game Jesse Eisenberg) in matters of sex and success, Eisenberg is no Charlie Sheen. The pupil doesn't outsmart the teacher but rather outclasses him. And Douglas has enough sense to realize it. Though he alienates everyone who ever counted on him, Kalmen (as Douglas plays him) doesn't find refuge in self-deception. He knows he's become a shadow of himself and his bravado is merely an empty sales pitch with nothing to back it up. Yet Solitary Man doesn't score points off Kalmen's indiscretions, nor does the picture make us feel morally superior. What we see in all its discomfort is the unraveling of one man's fear of dying, a mounting terror that the image he's invested a lifetime in propping up can't cast more than a pale reflection. In Solitary Man, Michael Douglas creates a character who is a construct of almost everything he's ever played and he unsparingly brings the curtain down on him.

There was a hint of this possibility in Wall Street 2: Money Never Sleeps (see here) but director Oliver Stone backed away from letting Douglas go the distance. Yet there's an obvious irony in Solitary Man (due to the recent revelation of Michael Douglas's illness), but who knows where his career could go from here. Solitary Man was no more successful than Wonder Boys which suggests that Douglas may be trapped. Yet there's a nice touch at the end of Solitary Man where Kalmen sees a tangible choice to be made. He could go on playing the seductive rogue who ultimately turns the tables on those who care for him, or he could get a chance to heal all wounds. He looks both ways then stares blankly at the camera. With a solitary man you never know which way he's going to turn.

-- Kevin Courrier is a writer/broadcaster, film critic, teacher and author. His forthcoming book is Reflections in the Hall of Mirrors: American Movies and the Politics of Idealism.

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