There's a certain kind of movie that I haven't heard a name for but its practitioners are the likes of Woody Allen, John Cassavetes, James Toback, and now Dylan Kidd, the writer/director of Roger Dodger. In their works, plot is an afterthought. The cinematography is at best atmospheric, and at worst, functional. The hearts of these films lie in dialogue, and the more the characters talk, the more they reveal, and the deeper we get into the mystery of who they are and why. We're interested as long as the characters keep talking.
The "Roger Dodger" here (Campbell Scott) does a whole lot of it. He's a mid-30s advertising copywriter in Manhattan, one of those guys who's always wearing a suit and smoking aggressively even though his job and lifestyle demand neither. Roger spends his lunch hours entertaining his colleagues with mildly aggressive (and brilliantly written) speeches about men and women and their evolutionary destiny and his nights trying to pull the same routine on women in bars. His refrain is that men work extraordinarily hard for sex because deep down they know it's just a matter of a few generations until they become unnecessary for procreation. He then proves his own case by saddling up to a woman and speechifying on how he's got her all figured out. Roger, of course, doesn't realize that your friends let you prattle on because they like you and are willing to indulge. Strangers just think you're being rude. Or maybe Roger does realize it, which is even creepier.
It all gets put to the test one day Roger's teenage nephew Nick (Jesse Eisenberg) shows up at his office. Nick claims to be in town for an interview at Columbia and somehow they stumble into a conversation about how Nick has never had sex. This is all the incentive Roger needs and since Nick is at first a willing pupil, the two launch into an evening of bar hopping, small talk, and progressively mean-spirited lessons from Roger on the art of seduction.
It's a very long night but Scott and Eisenberg work seamlessly together and the results, while pathetic, are also pretty damn funny. I've long thought that Scott had a role like this in him but that he had been shoehorned into playing sweet sensitive guys thanks to Singles and Dying Young, where he first made his name. Roger is a great leap forward, filled with sloppy, conflicted malevolence. He feels he's earned the right to be a self-righteous prick because he's put in the time, countless hours obsessing about women and sex. But what has really earned him if he's still out there obsessing?
Eisenberg, heretofore known as the brother of that annoying little girl in the Pepsi commercials, is a major find, the perfect dorky teenage earnestness to Roger's intellectual dick waving. As the night wears on, Nick's obliviousness charms two attractive women (Jennifer Beals and Elizabeth Berkley), and Roger's boorish aggression alienates both of them, his boss/ex-lover (Isabella Rossellini), and Nick as well. We're now fully perplexed as to whether all of Roger's blustery wisdom has ever really earned him the sustained company of a woman and pretty sure that Nick will do just fine if he learns how not to be like his Uncle Roger.
There isn't much more to it. Roger Dodger may have won the Best Feature award at the Tribeca Film Festival this year but be wary, it's still an acquired taste. If you're as happy listening to movies as you are watching them, and the slow parade of human frailty fascinates you, then you're at the right film. But that's all you get, because the Hall-of-Famers of this nameless genre -- Allen, Toback, and their grand master Howard Hawks -- as well as their new star student Dylan Kidd, don't believe in anything more.
For real movie "listeners" the Roger Dodger DVD offers some real treats, namely a bitterly sarcastic commentary track with Scott, Eisenberg, and Kidd. A couple of additional extras add some behind-the-scenes interviews that thankfully avoid much of the dryness of typical making-of bonus junk. Recommended.