A Player Grows Up

BY LYNN LEE

Most people who go see the talky, acerbically amusing and decidedly amoral Roger Dodger will recognize a male type they’ve come across before. In fact, not one type but three. There’s the fast-talking know-it-all who’s just clever and self-aware enough to stay one step up from the used car lot. The would-be player who’s not nearly as smooth an operator as he thinks he is. And finally, the rejected lover whose obsession with his ex borders on the psychotic. It’s no mean feat that Campbell Scott, veteran of indie fare like The Spanish Prisoner, manages to unite these distinctly unattractive types in a single character — and render the combination weirdly engaging.

Written and directed by newcomer Dylan Kidd, Roger Dodger is a comedy, but one with unexpectedly dark overtones. It rides the fine line between urbane satire and sordid realism, the latter accentuated by the poor lighting, the jerky, hand-held camera work and the unflattering glimpses it offers of the seamier side of New York. Yet Roger remains essentially opaque, perhaps deliberately so, and the movie mirrors its central figure. In the end, the film — like Roger himself — rejects any kind of in-depth analysis. The dialogue, which bristles with intelligence and ironic wit, is a constant reminder that we are not to take Roger too seriously, but to accept him on his own terms.

The plot is simple: Roger, who works in advertising and likes to spout a cheerfully cynical view of humankind and the relation between the sexes in particular with the fluent flippancy of a modern-day Oscar Wilde, is having an affair with his boss (a hard-edged Isabella Rossellini). She dumps him, and Roger can’t believe it. His response is to hit the bars, where he doesn’t so much try to pick up women as revenge his own humiliation by psychoanalyzing them to their faces and offending them as deeply as possible. He succeeds at the latter, scoring laughs from the audience, if not his prey.

It is at this propitious moment that his teenaged nephew Nick (Jesse Eisenberg) turns up, ostensibly to visit Columbia for an interview, but really to get tips from his uncle about picking up chicks: Nick has heard from his mother that his uncle is something of a “ladies’ man.” Roger agrees to take the boy out on the town and educate him in the art of seduction. However, because his view of women is obviously more warped than usual, he plays Mephistopheles rather than Don Juan to the unsuspecting Nick; one of the most pointedly allegorical sequences involves Nick and Roger descending underground, and ends with them rolling around literally in the garbage. Indeed, it becomes obvious fairly early on that bitter Roger is trying to get his kicks out of destroying his nephew’s naive conceptions of love and women — even though the only women with whom they have any significant contact (played by Jennifer Beals and Elizabeth Berkeley of Flashdance and Showgirls fame, respectively) are predictably charmed and touched by Nick’s wide-eyed innocence, and turned off by Roger’s sardonic misogynism.

Not to worry: Most of this film is funny, not serious, and Nick comes up dewy fresh as a rose, presenting an effective foil to the dissipated, over-seasoned alcoholic Roger. In fact, what connects nephew and uncle is less their differences in experience than their common immaturity. Roger is no more than the boy who refuses to grow up: At his lowest point, he scrawls insults on a bathroom mirror that are as childish as they are offensive. There are signs, too, that Roger could stand for some psychoanalysis himself: Hints of a troubled relationship with his father suggest, but only suggest, a partial explanation for his particular case of arrested development. Because of that, he can be all the more dangerous, especially during the disturbing moment when he leaves Nick to take advantage of a woman nearly passed out from drunkenness (“Always look for the women who are two drinks ahead of everyone else,” he says), so he himself can go confront his ex-lover.

The film retreats a little from the uglier side of Roger’s character, allowing him a certain measure of moral redemption at the end. But not too much. The ending strikes just the right note — the Roger we see at the end is not so much a reformed Roger as Roger on a good day rather than a bad one — and ends at just the right moment, with Nick as the final arbiter of his destiny as ladies’ man. He may have learned something from his one-night odyssey with Uncle Roger, but what that is, only he knows.


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