Solitary Men: The King, The Nerd & The Perv

SPOILERS DEAD AHEAD, SIR!

The Oscars are swiftly approaching and, from several of the critics, bloggers and strategists I’ve been reading (Roger Ebert, Jim Emerson, and others) the race for Best Picture has come down to “The Social Network” and “The King’s Speech” (although some dark horses may be gaining momentum).  These are two of 2010’s best films, so it is a hopeful sign that the Academy is recognizing their worth.  But what is more remarkable are the film’s themes.  (Ebert has some fascinating albeit brief notes on the two film’s links on his Best Films of 2010 essay.)

I’d like to throw another film into the stew, one that was totally ignored by the Academy.  It’s Brian Koppelman’s and David Levien’s “Solitary Man”, which stars Michael Douglas as a formerly successful car salesman who loses his business, reputation and part of his family because of his fiscal and relational infidelity.  I add this movie to the discussion for two reasons.  It’s an exemplary film – written and directed and acted to near perfection – and it’s uncommonly insightful in its treatment of loneliness.

What “The Social Network”, “The King’s Speech” and “Solitary Man” all have in common are its lonely leading men.  For “Network”, it’s Jesse Eisenberg’s Mark Zuckerberg, the founder of Facebook, who flings away his closest friends for the love of power.  In “Speech” it’s Colin Firth’s Bertie, who isolates himself out of shame of his disabling stammer.  And in “Solitary Man”, Douglas’ Ben Kalmen hides ugly selfishness under the guise of suaveness and relevant advice.  These are the epitome of solitary men, but I find the reasons – which are diverse – to be fascinating.

Take Zuckerberg for instance.  In the beginning of David Fincher’s film, Zuckerberg apparently has only one real friend, Eduardo Saverin (Andrew Garfield), and several friendly acquaintances.  Correction: he has a girlfriend at the beginning too, but in the film’s razor-sharp opening scene, he quickly remedies that problem as well.  Indeed, relationships in general are a problem for Zuckerberg.  All the people in his social sphere pose a major threat to him – namely that they will all become unmanageable.  He will no longer be able to control them with his untamed tongue.  To lose that sovereignty is to lose everything.  Facebook, then, is his deified solution.  To remain “social” without the possibility of the sphere falling apart.  Within the written code, all his friends become 1’s and 0’s, just a thumbnail picture lined up perfectly with everyone else.  Throughout the film, Zuckerberg is a conversational tyrant.  He throws words around with what, at first, appears to be precision.  But his words are carelessly chosen and delivered.  And on Facebook, his tyranny reaches its pinnacle.  It’s a costly exchange and he uses his one friend as currency.  “The Social Network” brilliantly paints Facebook as another major step toward massive communication breakdown.  At the film’s end, Zuckerberg tries to regain the girlfriend he spent the film’s beginning ridding himself of, but he must resort to adding her as a friend on Facebook and hoping she accepts his request.  Over this image, we read that he eventually became the world’s youngest billionaire.  Rich, powerful, surrounded by friends… and totally alone.

Meanwhile, there’s Bertie, who will become King George VI of England by the time the movie is over.  Bertie seems to be disabled by a stammer.  He can barely tell a story to his young daughters without stuttering, let alone complete a speech to the entire nation.  One speech therapist after another is called in and each one fails.  So Bertie pushes everyone away.  He’s only comfortable when he is alone.  Only there is he safe.  Only there can he communicate with his mouth the words in his head.  Unlike his modern counterpart, Zuckerberg, Bertie resists any kind of sovereignty and control.  He cannot handle them.  Bertie can’t talk; Zuckerberg can’t stop talking. There are several heartbreaking conversations Bertie has with his new speech coach, Lionel (played by Geoffrey Rush), in which he describes his upbringing.  Away from the working class, isolated in the walls of royal life, Bertie grew up terrified of the spotlight his royal name automatically placed on him.  He disappointed his father and drew mockery from his brother.  The more he divulges – through stammers, don’t forget – the more we realize his stammer is barely the issue.  The stammer is merely symptomatic of the true disability: fear.  The rest of the film, Bertie fights that fear with everything he’s got, and that fight produces a true and close friend.  This solitary man begins alone.  He ends with one true friend.  Rich and powerful by default; unafraid by choice.

And finally there is Ben Kalmen.  “Solitary Man” opens with Kalmen, at the top of his game, at the hospital for a routine checkup.  The doctor is “not happy” with a few of the test results and suggests he return for further testing.  Ben quite literally tunes out.  Somewhere in those opening moments, he plans it all out without even realizing it – the money schemes, the adultery, the lies.  Six years later, his wife has left him, his business has fallen apart, and his community reputation is irredeemable.  The name Ben Kalmen is synonymous with “cheater”.  What caused it?  Those opening moments are key.  Ben did not suddenly become capable of lying, cheating, and stealing; he was capable of that the whole time.  But in that doctor’s office, faced with the possibility of death, he realizes he very well might have nothing to live for.  To work and love well when your whole life is ahead of you is one thing, but people who have nothing to live for begin to focus all their energies on living exclusively for themselves.  So he indulges.  Ben doesn’t understand that his sins have community-sized consequences.  He even disguises his actions as good advice, imparting it all to his new girlfriend’s daughter and a college freshman at his alma mater.  (By the way, that college kid is played by Jesse Eisenberg.)  Ben can’t keep his moral decay to himself!  He shares it; he passes it around; and tries to perpetuate the cycle on younger people.  And yet, the more he shares with others, the more others flee.  All except an old college friend, Jimmy Merino (Danny DeVito).  Jimmy never reached the heights Ben did, but never experienced the fall either.  So Jimmy is essentially the only character on stable enough ground to tell Ben what he must hear.  Ben begins with one friend and, after some epic shuffling, somehow manages to end with that one friend.  The closing shot of “Solitary Man” is a perfect mix of closure and mystery.  Ben has to make a choice: either he continues with his lifestyle of alienating indulgence or he quits pretending he will live forever and enters back into a life of community.  The movie doesn’t tell us what his choice is.

I can’t recommend these three movies to you enthusiastically enough.  “Solitary Man” and “The Social Network” are available now (“Solitary Man” is currently on Netflix Instant Play).  “The King’s Speech” is still playing in some second-run movie theaters.  Watch them with friends.

“The Social Network” – opening scene

“The King’s Speech” trailer

“Solitary Man” trailer

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About Collin Damon Welch
Collin worked in the film/TV industry for a while. Now he's pursuing ministry. He and his incomparably beautiful wife Nicole live in Chicago.

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