Michael Douglas is at his best when playing a character at his worst.

Solitary Man is a wafer-thin film with a river-deep, mountain-high performance from Douglas. For its unpitying look at a pitiful man, it rivals the actor's turns in the underknown Wonder Boys and King of California.

This time he is Ben Kalmen, disgraced New York businessman, who amuses himself and appalls everyone else by bedding women and girls with daddy issues. Some might describe this incorrigible lech, a sexagenarian in more ways than one, as Hugh Hefner with Gordon Gekko hair and a gecko's reptilian ethics. Directors Brian Koppelman and David Levien (working from Koppelman's original script) structure their film as a portrait of a drowning man who methodically cuts every lifeline.

Once known as the tristate area's only honest car dealer, Ben has cashed in his chips for some chippies and cheap thrills. Because he can? Because he's distracting himself from his fear of aging?

Ben's wife (Susan Sarandon) has decamped. His daughter (Jenna Fischer) is in the dubious position of parenting her parent. ("Don't call me Grandpa! Call me Captain Ben!" he commands his grandson.) His mistress (Mary-Louise Parker) goes for the jugular when Ben puts the moves on her daughter (Imogen Poots).

Douglas is extraordinary as the salesman who believes his own spiel, trying to reclaim his vanished empire by working connections he treats with such casual contempt. For this businessman, everything - work, sex, relationships - is a transaction designed to maximize his personal pleasure and minimize his emotional exposure.

How is it that Ben, who deceives no one else, can be so self-deceived? This is the delicious paradox of Douglas' performance. The more unscrupulous Ben is, the more entertaining Solitary Man gets.


Contact movie critic Carrie Rickey at 215-854-5402 or crickey@phillynews.com. Read her blog, "Flickgrrl," at http://www.philly.com/philly/blogs/flickgrrl/