In the annals of world history, assholes, either of the muscle-bound or sharp-tongued variety, get girls. It’s sexual Darwinism, survival of the physically and mentally fittest. The smooth talkers don’t come into the picture until well after grammar school, of course, but once they get some play, they can be just as unstoppable as the jocks.
Roger is an asshole.
Nick doesn’t know this when he unexpectedly shows up in Roger’s ad agency office, mushmouthedly asking for help with women. All Nick (Jesse Eisenberg) knows is that his uncle Roger (Campbell Scott) is something of a ladies’ man, and that only somebody who knows everything about scoring could possibly help him. Like most things in the world of adolescents, this is a life-and-death matter to Nick. While it looks extreme for Nick to go all the way from Ohio to New York City in order to learn about girls, teenagers are extreme. Roger Dodger understands and appreciates (and sometimes celebrates) this.
After a brief introduction in which Roger gets unceremoniously dumped by his girlfriend and boss, Joyce (Isabella Rossellini), Roger Dodger shifts gears into educational buddy flick. Roger starts Nick off slowly, teaching him how to surreptitiously ogle women using glances and angles. Roger’s lesson, time and again, is to use every single advantage that comes your way. This includes everything from a stray breeze ruffling a skirt to Nick’s bracelet with instructions to cryogenically freeze his body when he dies. “That’s just spastic enough to be charming,” Roger observes, which is a good description of Roger Dodger as a whole. Roger’s theories on the obtainment of women and writer-director Dylan Kidd’s script are both of the so-crazy-that-they-might-actually-work variety.
Under Roger’s tutelage, Nick works on his lounge act. The two tag-team a pair of women, Andrea (Elizabeth Berkley) and Sophie (Jennifer Beals) in a bar. (Nick’s advantage here being the element of surprise — what’s a teenager doing in a bar?) This is where Nick learns the most important lesson of all: Adrenaline is magic. Roger teaches Nick that the element of surprise works both ways, as a method of getting into somebody’s pants and as the motivation to get there. He repeatedly forces Nick to work without a net — the old “Nick here has something to tell you” trick — and Nick responds with what can only be termed aplombless aplomb.
Nick, who starts out the day with zero confidence about women, turns out to have a surprising supply of confidence about himself. He is unable to turn into what Roger wants him to be, what Roger’s stock in trade is: a liar, a womanizer, a man with no regard for anybody but himself. Nick is our hope for humanity; when Andrea tells Nick the world needs more men like him, she is deadly serious. Nick’s sincerity (with the inherent artlessness that earnestness implies regarding the picking up of women) is his greatest advantage. “What’s your hook?” Roger asks his nephew. The answer is obvious: Nick’s hook is that he has no hook.
This is Kidd’s debut film and it’s full of promise. The words he puts in his characters’ mouths are funny, incisive and disturbingly real. Kidd is by no means perfect; it’s hard to decide which is more nauseating, the jittercam cinematography (Roger Dodger was shot completely with handheld cameras) or that Berkley looks older than Beals. But his selection of actors and the performances he gets out of them more than make up for the technical problems. Eisenberg’s stutter-step innocence complements Scott’s steely eyed precision perfectly.
Kidd’s presentation of Roger owes a great deal to Neil LaBute’s In the Company of Men, but where that film was about as comfortable to watch as a trip to the urologist, there’s at least a tiny bit of hope for the title character of Roger Dodger. Maybe. The obliqueness of Roger’s motives is the movie’s greatest flaw, although that can easily be overlooked due to Kidd’s gift for dialogue. Is Roger upset about the breakup with Joyce because he became unexpectedly attached to her, or because of his alpha-male need to break up with somebody first — only he got beaten to the punch? Does he really think that Nick should sleep with an unconscious woman at a party, or does he use Nick’s conscience as a teaching tool? Does he care at all about Nick or only about himself? Does he have blood running through his veins or ice water?
Given that Nick is a blood relation, we’ll have to give Roger the benefit of the doubt.
Showing exclusively at the Main Art Theatre (118 N. Main, Royal Oak). Call 248-542-0180.
Erin Podolsky writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.