The repellent Casanova portrayed by Campbell Scott in Roger Dodger has an instinct for looking up skirts and down cleavages, but no capacity for looking in the mirror. Part salesman, part caveman, Madison Avenue copywriter Roger Swanson is, deep in his cynical heart, as loathsome to himself as he is to us, but he disguises that with a torrent of talk and an array of poses. Most of all, he fashions himself a ladies’ man nonpareil, a winner in the gender wars, a pro at the top of his form.
He’s a fraud, of course. In one harrowing and bitterly funny night on the town, Roger presumes to give a crash course in seduction techniques to his innocent sixteen-year-old nephew, Nick (the extraordinary Jesse Eisenberg), who claims to be visiting from Ohio to look at colleges. Instead, we learn all about Roger’s shocking immaturity, the hollowness of his intellectual parries, and the void in his soul. Already, young Nick is twice the man Uncle Roger is. So much for the wisdom of experience.
Rookie writer and director Dylan Kidd, late of NYU film school, knows how to get the best out of jittery, hand-held camera shots, and he knows how to go for the jugular. Roger is the bleakest comic portrait of misogynist self-delusion we’ve seen in a long time. But there’s also something cartoonish and schematic about him, despite the best efforts of actor Scott (The Spanish Prisoner, The Sheltering Sky). Too often, we can hear the young filmmaker noisily assembling his parts — all the odious character traits we must see to get the message about Roger. Too many of them are transmitted by speeches, too few by action.
Still, the film springs to life in so many places that we forget about Kidd’s construction project. Roger’s opening rant about biology, natural selection, and the principles of nature (as they apply to getting laid) sounds distinctly undergraduate. But when Roger and Nick move on to a tony Manhattan saloon and strike up a conversation with a couple of beauties named Andrea (Showgirls‘ Elizabeth Berkley) and Sophie (Flashdance‘s Jennifer Beals), we start to see the follies of the failed pickup artist and the sweet curiosities of a boy who reminds the older women of their own adolescent uncertainties, not so long past. Berkley and Beals are wonderful here, and so is Kidd’s writing. Sister-soldiers in a long battle against conniving fools like Roger, they manage to keep perspective and maintain optimism. “We need more men like you,” Sophie softly tells Nick, while relegating his uncle to the outer rings of Saturn.
The evening is just getting started, though. Nephew in tow, Roger moves on to an East Side party to which he has definitely not been invited — for the very good reason that the hostess, who is also his boss at the agency (Isabella Rossellini), has just called a halt to her brief fling with him. That, of course, evinces more stupidity and bad behavior from Roger, who even urges young Nick to prey on a drunken woman who’s fallen in a heap on a bed. After all, the Roger Dodger code precludes taking prisoners: “Always anticipate your opportunities,” the instructor tells the boy. Happily, the boy’s decency prevails.
Inevitably, this nicely skewed coming-of-age story winds up — late, late in the night — in a grimy downtown whorehouse. So driven is the poisoned ad man to promote his image and sell his product that he drags a teenager down into hell with him. “This is the fail-safe,” Roger tells the kid. The last resort. If you haven’t before, you really start to see who’s got the most growing-up to do here.
Young Eisenberg, who also appears in the new prep school drama The Emperor’s Club, manages to steal the show — and not just because he’s the appealing one instead of the appalling one. We’ve all seen dozens of movies about teenage angst and bewilderment, but Eisenberg, who was a series regular on Fox TV’s Get Real, gives Nick the kind of authenticity and wit too rarely seen on the adolescent acting front. The boy won’t soon forget his weird night in New York with Uncle Roger, and the movie’s highly ambiguous ending underscores the point. As for Dylan Kidd, give him high marks for perseverance. After many frustrations, he virtually forced the unproduced script for Roger Dodger on Campbell Scott in a Greenwich Village coffee shop two years ago. From that chance meeting sprang this black-comic vision of the American male animal at large and, it seems, a writing and directing career of great promise.