An incisive character study, "Roger Dodger" marks the auspicious writing-directing
debut of Dylan Kidd. A fascinating balancing act between truthful
catharsis and human comedy, the film's highlight is definitely its
screenplay, both for the rhapsodic dialogue that jumps off the page,
and for the memorable character creations.
Manhattan advertising copywriter Roger Swanson (Campbell Scott) is
a hard-edged, cynical, self-proclaimed "ladies man" who's pushing
40. He also happens to be a know-it-all who, in the first scene, explains
a Darwinistic theory on why rising technology will eventually make
men meaningless to female reproduction. And, to top it all off, he
is left confused and angered after his slightly older boss, Joyce
(Isabella Rossellini), breaks off the fling they have been secretly carrying on.
One day, fate lands in Roger's office in the form of 16-year-old nephew,
Nick (Jesse Eisenberg), who claims he is in town for an interview
at Columbia. When the inexperienced Nick asks for advice on how to
score with women, Roger is more than happy to take him under his wing
for a wild night on the town. As drinks are readily consumed, bars
are hopped, and women come in and out of the picture, the night turns
into something more for Roger, who realizes, to his horror, that maybe
he doesn't have as many of the answers as he originally thought.
"Roger Dodger" will come as a veritable treat to viewers who favor
well-flowing, snappy dialogue and intelligent character development
over explosions and car chases. Writer-director Dylan Kidd has a sharp
ear for the way people really speak, and then digs deeper to show
how they feel. This is never more true than for the title character
who, as a child, adopted the nickname, "Roger Dodger," because he
was always able to work his way out of a jam. Roger instructs Nick
on how to talk and look at women as if he were a Lothario godsend,
but as the film progresses, Kidd sneakily suggests that he may not
be quite the successful womanizer that he brags he is.
In a career-best performance, Campbell Scott (1998's "The Spanish
Prisoner") is terrific as Roger, an outwardly smarmy, self-assured
man who is hiding feelings of loneliness and neglect just beneath
the surface. Roger isn't always the most pleasant man to be around,
but he isn't necessarily bad as much as he is simply absorbed with
his own macho ego. As the unsure, but charming Nick, Jesse Eisenberg
(2002's "The Emperor's Club" and the older brother of Hallie Kate
Eisenberg) is just as good, expressing a wide-eyed innocence as he
is exposed for the first time to sexual conversations between adults,
alcohol, and even a sad trip to a brothel.
One of the most intriguing aspects of "Roger Dodger" is the way the
female characters are so accurately handled, dismantling Roger's confident
view of women every step of the way. Early in their evening together,
Roger and Nick meet two beautiful women, Andrea (Elizabeth Berkley)
and Sophie (Jennifer Beals), who are as attracted to Nick's purity
as they are repulsed by Roger's arrogance. Elizabeth Berkley (2001's
"The Curse of the Jade Scorpion") has come a long way since 1995's
reviled "Showgirls." She is luminous here, as is the underrated Jennifer
Beals (2001's "The Anniversary Party"), in the kind of thoughtful,
sparklingly written supporting roles that make you sit up and take notice.
There are a few rough spots in "Roger Dodger," particularly in the
final ten minutes when Kidd is unsure of how to rap the story up.
At the same time, the journey of self-discovery that both Roger and
Nick go on is indelibly felt without feeling the need to spell things
out for the viewer or go over-the-top. The exquisitely realized characters
on display throughout, and the entertaining things they say, make
"Roger Dodger" an above-average independent film that is worth a look.
Even if it isn't particularly original or innovative in the movements
of its plot, it has an enormously big heart, and a mind to go along with it, too.
Copyright © 2002 Dustin Putman