Ben Kalmen (Michael Douglas) is a charming man, so he thinks he can get away with anything. Kalmen is a giant in his world, a man with a personality so overwhelming one can’t help but admire him superficially. But underneath all the bluster is a weak man who can’t say no to his impulses when his charm gives him vast opportunities to take advantage of people, mostly young women. Kalmen is a man devoid of morality, who, even though he does the wrong thing time and again, still comes back, seemingly undaunted, for another day.
Douglas captures this movie about how charm and charisma can lead a man down the primrose path, and makes it his own. But Douglas’ performance should not take anything away from this terrific cast. The script by Brian Koppelman (who also directed with David Levien) is brilliant. Despite Ben’s charm, he has forsaken a happy marriage to Nancy (Susan Sarandon), alienates a devoted Upper East Side lover, Jordan (Mary-Louise Parker), uses her daughter, Allyson Karasch (nineteen-year-old Imogen Poots), and his daughter, Susan (Jenna Fischer), and a young friend he advises, Daniel Cheston (Jesse Eisenberg), and his oldest friend, Jimmy (Danny DeVito).
Koppelman and Levien based Kalmen on the “kings of New York” they observed growing up. Says Koppelman, “We had spent years talking about men like Ben; men with enormous assets, not just financially, but of personality and intellect too; charming, powerful men who, for some reason, betray their gifts and lose their way.” Who better to portray this type of personality than the man who portrayed Gordon Gekko?
Standing out among the wonderful performances of Douglas and his cast, Olivia Thrilby, in an uncredited role, gives a scintillating performance in her short role as Daniel’s girlfriend near the end of the film. In an all-to-brief appearance, she nails it. For my money, her role is one of the more essential in the film, showing Ben for the character he really is.
Without giving anything away, it ends the way I would have ended it. As Monroe Starr would say in The Last Tycoon (1976), that’s the movies.