Michael Douglas has played some scoundrels in his day but few have been as incorrigible, or as perversely endearing, as Ben Kalman. A respected pillar of the business community ("New York's Honest Car Dealer"), and a decent family man, he suffers an existential crisis in his cardiologist's office and begins living each day as if it were his last.
Unfortunately for Ben and everyone he encounters, it isn't. We meet him after half a decade of heedless hedonism has drained his bank account, sunk his reputation and alienated most of his family and former friends. All in all, Ben's an extra-large trash bag.
We're naturally sympathetic to film underdogs, even the unabashed rogues, and Ben is the fall guy in a comedy of cosmic humiliation. He's a satirical archetype, the high-flying businessman brought low by hubris and a yen for women a third his age. A man who used to close multimillion dollar deals with a grin and a handshake, he's burned out, his exhaustion mirroring that of a staggering economy.
And nobody does sagging male vanity as well as Douglas. Buoyed by director Brian Koppelman's sharp script and a stellar supporting cast, he makes Ben's skid into the ditch mesmerizing.
His ex-wife, Nancy (Susan Sarandon), views him with weary affection and might welcome him back if he ever snapped out of his self-absorption. For the time being, however, he's wooing Jordan (Mary-Louise Parker), a brittle socialite whose well-connected father might help Ben resuscitate his career.
Incapacitated by the sniffles, Jordan deputizes Ben to take her monumentally spoiled daughter, Allyson (Imogen Poots), to her college interview in Boston. This proves to be the worst plan in the history of bad plans.
Ben's ego and libido collide with Allyson's hostility to her mother in a conflagration that is excruciating and hilarious to behold. And just for a little collateral damage, Ben mentors Cheston (Jesse Eisenberg), offering the sweet, shy sophomore cynical tips about closing "the transaction" with girls.
Douglas redeems Ben with flashes of charm and self-deprecating humor. Ben is quick to say the worst about himself, as if that pre-empted everyone else's legitimate criticism. The screenplay shows that he can fool some of the people some of the time, but he can't fool himself any more. The film doesn't offer a pat story of redemption, but reveals Ben's gradual awakening to his own line of bull.
In scenes where Ben is on his own, Douglas drops the power-player razzmatazz, slumping wearily. Those are the moments that reveal how draining the alpha dog act has become. The finale strikes just the right note of wary optimism. Ben is too flawed for a happy ending, but by the fadeout we know him so well we can't help but wish him well.
Colin Covert • 612-673-7186