Thursday, November 10, 2011

Roger Dodger

The cinema has presented its fair share of male lotharios who are more than willing to share their so-called secrets to seducing the fairer sex. I think on Richard Lester's THE KNACK...AND HOW TO GET IT and even FAST TIMES AT RIDGEMONT HIGH as solid examples of this genre. Add 2002's ROGER DODGER to the list, similiarly documenting a Don Juan who proves to be all surface; not as slick as he thought, and actually quite an empty soul.

Campbell Scott is cast a bit against type as Roger Swanson, a rather jaded NYC advertising exec. Note this exchange he has with his nephew, Nick (Jesse Eisenberg) who's shown up in town (and his office) unexpectedly:

Roger: You can't sell a product without first making people feel bad.
Nick: Why not?
Roger: Because it's a substitution game. You have to remind them that they're missing something from their lives. Everyone's missing something, right?
Nick: I guess.
Roger: Trust me. And when they're feeling sufficiently incomplete, you convince them your product is the only thing that can fill the void. So instead of taking steps to deal with their lives, instead of working to root out the real reason for their misery, they go out and buy a stupid looking pair of cargo pants.

Roger is also quite cynical about women. In the opening scene of ROGER DODGER, he's holding court at a dinner with several colleagues, explaining how technology will one day render males completely unnecessary to women:
Technology and evolution will have combined...
to exclude sperm from procreation...
and our fiinal destiny will be to lift couches...
and wait for that day when telepathy overcomes gravity...
and our gender's last remaining utility is lost forever
As the film progresses, Roger is shown to be an alarming (though quite articulate and entertaining) narcissist, perhaps even a sociopath. Witness his speech to a 50ish woman he's just met at a bar:

I could tell you that what you think of as your personality is nothing but a collection of Vanity Fair articles. I could tell you your choice of sexual partners this evening was decided months ago by some account executive at Young & Rubicam. I could tell you that given a week to study your father and the ways in which he ignores you I could come up with a schtick you'd be helpless to resist. Helpless.
I quote so much of this movie directly as the dialogue is one of ROGER DODGER's best qualities. Not since the small body of films by writer/director Whit Stillman (METROPOLITAN) has dialogue been so intregral to character (and the overall film's) definition. Here, an middle-aged urbanite whose loathing of himself is only assauged by directing it to others tenfold. His speeches are lengthy and self-important but quite rhythmic and fascinating. It is the first time I've seen Campbell exploit this sort of persona, after nice-guy turns in THE SPANISH PRISONER and SINGLES. He's quite good here.

The bulk of ROGER DODGER follows the main character and his nephew through NYC as the former offers his strategies for female seduction, per Nick's request. Roger begins with nuts and bolts nuances (even old tricks like dropping a pen to look up a skirt) and eye contact. He brings the 16 year old Nick into a bar where they meet Andrea (Elizabth Berkley) and Sophie (Jennifer Beals), the kid telling them he made a bet with his uncle for one grand that he could get a woman to fall in love with him in one night. Conversations of refreshing honesty and intelligence follow. Hearing them is quite a contrast to the paper thin and idiotic exchanges we hear in most contemporary films, regardless of genre. Neither actress has ever been so warm and appealing (and genuine) as they are here. This sequence manages to be hopeful and romantic in the best possible ways. The ladies provide choice counterpoint to Roger's continuous cynicism and crassness. "Feeling a little bit of vertical displacement?" he asks his nephew after Sophie kisses the boy.

The night will continue with ill advised ventures to Roger's boss' (and ex-lover's) party, to which he was not invited, and a "fail safe", a place he considers a last resort sure thing for a man who has struck out everywhere else. And indeed Roger strikes out repeatedly. ROGER DODGER gives us a sobering view of a very lonely man whose mask is cocksureness, an alleged proclivity for female companionship, albeit the kind that usually doesn't last past breakfast.

As Nick, Eisenberg is quite perfect as the nerdy straight laced bookworm who doesn't even consume caffeine, finding himself having drinks with much older women. It's probably more fun to watch his performance now than it was in '02, as his later turn in THE SOCIAL NETWORK is similiar in many ways. Nick is not quite as neurotic as his performance as Mark Zuckerberg, rather more romantic and innocent, but still unsure of social politics, the in-person kind, that is. Nick's trajectory in ROGER DODGER is not as dynamic as perhaps I would've liked, but writer/director Dylan Kidd's screenplay allows him to react convincingly to a first kiss, to both real and childlike females.

But Roger is the more childlike of the pair. Frighteningly erudite in his speech (his ramblings, some very funny and eminently quotable, are reason enough to see this movie) but unable to truly relate and connect in an adult fashion. ROGER DODGER would be essential viewing for someone who likes to discuss things like "emotional IQ". Most of the way, it's a very astute essay. I just wish Kidd had a better wrap-up for his film; the final scene in Nick's high school cafeteria is quite dissapointing in its simplicity, seeming almost as if to tie everything up with a tired joke.
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