Campbell Scott's performance in the title role of "Roger Dodger" -- as a bombastic, psychologically savage, emotionally immature inveterate bachelor who habitually prowls Manhattan nightclubs, bars and even his own office for sexual conquests -- is an outstanding work of complete character submersion.
In the film's opening scene, the actor best known for nice-guy supporting roles ("The Spanish Prisoner," "Big Night") rearranges his boyish, amiable good looks into a brash, supercilious sneer and launches into venomous musing on the evolution of the sexes ("Until women develop the ability to move heavy objects by telepathy, they will need the male...") in a debate with his circle of co-worker pals. By the time he adds a cigarette smoke exclamation point to his diatribe, you can't help but find the guy contemptible.
His arrogance knows no bounds, at least on the surface. His idea of a great pick-up line is to look a woman up and down, single out likely weaknesses in her self-image and exploit them openly, hoping to hit a raw nerve. "You can't sell a product without first making people feel bad," he sniffs, applying his ad industry parlance to both work and the dating game.
So when Roger's unworldly, 16-year-old, suburban nephew Nick (Jesse Eisenberg) turns up on his doorstep seeking a crash course in the art of seduction, he relishes in the opportunity to pass down his ignominious wisdom in verbose and razor-sharp pontifications. But in the process, Roger unintentionally exposes his true nature to anyone paying close attention: He's is a 30-something sexual parasite who can't face the thought of spending a night not just by himself, but with himself.
Operating on so many levels that his acidic character is completely unaware of, Scott quietly betrays the cold, bruised soul beneath Roger's rakish facade -- and he does it so well that when Roger is summarily shot out of the saddle by women who don't fall for his game, Scott garners some genuine pity while still seeming utterly ignoble.
An astute and stylishly brooding black comedy-drama, deftly scripted and directed by first-time filmmaker Dylan Kidd, the movie takes place over the course of one night as Roger throws his protégé into the deep end of the dating pool. He sneaks the reluctant high schooler -- a nervous, fresh-faced virgin in sneakers, jeans, sweatshirt and an unwieldy backpack -- into a singles bar and plies him with drinks. ("Partial inebriation is essential to your success tonight.")
Then Roger puts Nick on the spot with a pair of amused, mischievous good-time girls 10 years the kid's senior (Elizabeth Berkley and Jennifer Beals in memorably tantalizing performances), expecting him to sink or swim. The roguish uncle's primary advice: "Your instinct will be to tell the truth. Fight that."
When the women actually take to Nick's innocently candid and impulsively curious quizzing about their sex lives ("What was your first time like?") while brushing off Roger's cruder advances, the cad's gut instinct is one of sabotage -- which leads mentor and apprentice to more sordid misadventures over the course of the night.
Cunning and cagey in employing guerilla cinema tactics to keep "Roger Dodger" bracing and kinetic, Kidd captures the conscious and subconscious nuances on the faces of his actors. Even in a long, amazingly uncut tracking shot through midtown -- which follows from a distance as Roger schools Nick in the art of covert ogling -- every nuance Scott and Eisenberg convey comes across in living color.
But the film is at its best when Kidd moves in close (and cools it with the motion-sickness hand-held camerawork), where his entire cast gives him shade upon shade of cognition to work with. This is never truer than in scenes between Roger and his boss -- a beautiful, confident older woman (played by the magnificent, perfectly self-possessed Isabella Rossellini) who fractured his misogynistic ego by tossing him aside after a fling.
Crashing a party at her apartment, Roger prods his nephew to bed a pretty office mate who'd passed out from too much drink. But being a horny teenager of some moral fiber, he doesn't take the bait. As the rest of "Roger Dodger" unfolds, the focus shifts to Nick's journey from deer-in-the-headlights naiveté to the first hints of sexual savvy, and Eisenberg does a striking job of playing the teenager's learning curve while keeping his conscience intact.
From that ego-driven beginning to the sly final moments, this spicy dark sex farce is a tantalizing, provocative indulgence. "Roger Dodger" may well be destined for bachelor-flick cult status -- the perfect cross between "Swingers" and "In the Company of Men" that we didn't know we needed until we had it.
Run time: 106 mins
In Theaters: Thursday 6th March 2003
Box Office USA: $1.2M
Box Office Worldwide: $1.3M
Distributed by: Artisan Entertainment
Production compaines: Roger Dodger LLC, Holedigger Films
Contactmusic.com: 3 / 5
Rotten Tomatoes: 88%
Fresh: 107 Rotten: 15
IMDB: 7.1 / 10
Director: Dylan Kidd
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