Michael Douglas stars in story of a man living for his bad choices
Michael Douglas has the title role in this bristly comedy-drama, and he’s surrounded by an outstanding supporting cast. Screenwriter Brian Koppelman (who also co-directed) puts Douglas at the center of a small, brashly offbeat anecdote, and gives him and the supporting players more or less even shares in a steady stream of pungent dialog. The tale that emerges from all this is not particularly exceptional, but the resulting portraiture—of the charmingly twisted title character and of the people variously enthralled by him—is often unexpectedly fresh.
Ben Kalmen (Douglas) is a middle-aged hotshot, a once legendary New York car dealer whose career and life have run aground on more kinds of bankruptcy than just the financial one. Divorced from his calmly bemused wife Nancy (Susan Sarandon) and navigating a power-broker romance with the socially influential Jordan Karsch (Mary-Louise Parker), he is also a compulsive womanizer increasingly given to reckless pursuit of college-age lasses.
Koppleman’s plot has Kalmen chaperoning Karsch’s daughter Allyson (Imogen Poots) on a college application visit to his alma mater. At the same time, he’s also angling to gain a new foothold in the auto sales business and doing his best to mend fences with his ex-wife and their warily compassionate daughter Susan (Jenna Fischer) and her young son Scotty. A charming sort of wheeler-dealer rogue, he’s dealing in illusions right and left, and not all of them are his.
Kalmen is an energetic and cheerfully amoral entrepreneur for whom every kind of relationship—romantic, familial, financial—is a transaction that must be tweaked to a profitable conclusion. It’s no surprise that his blithely cynical enthusiasms come to no good end, but the film’s chops reside elsewhere—in how Kalmen and a half dozen others respond to his deceptions and betrayals and to their own complicity in his assorted charismatic escapades.
The real storytelling here goes on in the faces and bearing of the supporting cast—with Fischer, Poots, Jesse Eisenberg (as a nerdy college student) and the unbilled Olivia Thirlby (as his girlfriend) being especially fine. And Douglas is very sharp and understated as well—he inhabits the character’s contradictions with a minimum of actorish fuss, and with no special pleading or sentimental manipulation, let alone rank moralizing, from Koppleman’s script.