From the DVD Shelf: Roger Dodger (2002)
In the biting, acid film Roger Dodger, Campbell Scott stars as Roger, a handsome, well-off, and very arrogant New York advertising executive who seems able to use his sharp tongue to talk any women he wants into having sex with him. One day his 16 year-old nephew, Nick (Jesse Eisenberg) shows up in his office. Nick is in town looking at Columbia, and while he’s there he wants his smooth-with-the-ladies uncle to teach him how to talk to women. Although he’s at first put-off by the idea of having to deal with this kid, Roger quickly agrees to school Nick in That Which He Knows Best, and the two begin a crazy night that will take them all over the city and in and out of the lives of several fascinating and beautiful women.
I don’t know what on earth prompted me to rent this film on DVD five or six years ago, but it really blew me away as a unique, hard-to-define, I can’t quite believe what I’m watching film. I’ve been meaning to see it again for ages.
Written and directed by Dylan Kidd, Roger Dodger is an extraordinarily well-written and well-made film that demonstrates the skill of an artist in his prime. (I really want to know what the heck Mr. Kidd has been up to since 2002!! I wish he’d made six movies in that time!) The script is exquisite, with rat-a-tat dialogue that is fiercely intelligent, funny, and very biting. If you told me that David Mamet had scripted this film, I would easily believe it.
Right away from the opening scene it’s clear that this is a movie unlike many others. The film opens with a lengthy post-meal conversation over drinks and smokes between Roger and his friends. In between some light banter with the people around the table, Roger unloads a lengthy monologue describing how he feels that evolution and technology are combining to gradually render the male species obsolete. Roger’s dialogue demonstrates his keen intelligence and verbal skill, and also his arrogance and his close-minded, gender-focused worldview. The scene is shot in a fascinating style that Mr. Kidd will utilize throughout the film. There are never any master shots used (wide shots that show us the setting for a scene and where all of the characters are in relation to one another). Instead, the scene plays out through a series of close-ups, filmed with a hand-held shaky cam that is continually moving around and observing the central characters through visual obstacles (over the shoulder of another character, obstructed by a glass or a table center-piece, etc.). It’s a bit disorienting, but also extraordinarily vibrant and energizing, and a terrific way to make the audience feel as if we’re right there in the scene with the characters. It’s very bold, and very cool.
Though Roger considers himself a ladies man, as we get to know him, we see that his views about women and about the world are extraordinarily repugnant. He has not an ounce of respect for the women he meets — they are a goal, an opponent to conquer. Roger’s whole persona is based on the idea of using his continuing stream of verbosity to manipulate women into going to bed with him. Not so much in the sense of tricking them into something, but more in the sense of precisely tailoring every single thing that he says and does towards to goal of getting a woman to WANT to go to bed with him. That Roger devotes every fiber of his being, with such extraordinary energy and enthusiasm, towards this goal — and with what first appears to be such apparent success — is initially sort of impressive (despite how distasteful it might be). As the film progresses and we learn more about Roger and his life, it becomes increasingly sad and pathetic.
Campbell Scott absolutely owns this film. It’s one of the finest performances by a lead actor that I’ve ever seen. Obviously the incredibly strong material that he’s given helps, but still, I was astounded at how completely Mr. Scott embodied this tough, brash, super-confident alpha male. It’s a total 180-degree change from the gentle, nerdy character that Mr. Scott played so memorably in the lead role of The Spanish Prisoner. Mr. Scott is absolutely on-fire in this film, from start-to-finish. Even as he says the most horrible things, he is magnetic. He commands the screen so that you can’t help but be focused on his character. It’s truly a phenomenal performance.
Right there with him is Jesse Eisenberg — in what I believe is his first major film role — as the 16-year-old Nick. (It’s funny — purely by chance I seem to be watching a lot of Mr. Eisenberg’s films these days — The Social Network, Adventureland, and The Squid and the Whale.) Even in this early performance, it’s clear that Mr. Eisenberg is a great talent. His nervous energy is a perfect balance for Roger’s super-suave ways, and watching these two could-not-be-more-different characters bounce off of one another throughout the film is a delight. Though Nick is eager to learn how to do what Roger does, so that he can some-day talk with confidence to a girl and put an end to his virginity, Nick has an inherent honesty and goodness that becomes more apparent the more time he spends with his fairly distasteful uncle. It’s fascinating to see what the two characters learn from one another as the story progresses. (And no, don’t worry, this isn’t one of those movies with a simplistic happy ending, in which Roger agrees joyfully to give up his womanizing ways in order to settle down and start a family. But both men are significantly affected by the long night that they spend together, and I love the way the film, in it’s final 5-10 minutes, show us the subtle ways in which they both have been changed. The last scene of the film — and, in particular, that last shot — are deliriously perfect.)
Roger Dodger isn’t just about the men. There are several talented actresses in key roles in the film as well. The great Isabella Rossellini is wonderful as Joyce, Roger’s boss at his advertising firm, and the woman with whom he is having regular sex at the film’s start. Ms. Rossellini’s Joyce is beautiful and tough as nails. We can immediately see why Roger is infatuated with her. Even more impressive, she’s the one woman in the film who seems to know how to deal with Roger, and who isn’t afraid to say no to him.
When Roger and Nick begin their night together, they head to a fancy bar (into which Roger sneaks Nick) and begin a lengthy sequence in which they talk to and flirt with two beautiful young women: Andrea (played by Elizabeth Berkley) and Sophie (played by Jennifer Beals). Both actresses are terrific and make quite an impression. Jennifer Beals is a long way from Flashdance, but she’s still absolutely gorgeous and funny, honest, and endearing in the role of Sophie. Elizabeth Berkley became something of a joke after Showgirls, and I’m having a hard time of thinking of any film or TV show I’ve seen her in (I never watched Saved by the Bell), but she’s really solid as Andrea. She’s very naturalistic in her delivery of the dialogue, and I thought she brought a lot of depth to the role. These are clearly two young women who know a thing or two about a thing or two, and they both seem to be somewhat attracted to Nick’s naive innocence and to Roger’s fast-talking intelligence and charm, though not so much that they do anything rash.
Although Joyce, Andrea, and Sophie are clearly secondary characters — the focus of the film is squarely on Roger and Nick — I think the fact that the women are, nevertheless, as interesting and complex as they are helps keep the film afloat. If these women are really opponents, as Roger sees them, then so be it. They are worthy opponents indeed.
Roger Dodger is not a film for everyone. There is a lot of frank talk about sex and a lot of sex-related topics. Much of that talk, at least the talk that comes from Roger, is pretty mean-spirited. But I found the film to be a gripping journey, funny and sad and also subversive and dangerous — like we’re getting a glimpse into a dark world that most don’t get to see or even know exists. The dialogue is sharp-as-nails, the acting is superb, and the directing is skillful. The film is a fast-paced ride, and if you’re feeling adventurous, it’s worth taking a chance on this one.