Roger Swanson (Campbell Scott) is a successful advertising copywriter, as cynical as they come. "I can’t sell product," he explains, "without making people feel bad." He’s also every bit as glib as might be expected of a Madison Avenue wordsmith, but his preferred topic isn’t marketing. He fancies himself a sophisticated man about town and discourses on sex and the relationship between men and women. Hanging out with a group of colleagues in a bar, including his boss and current affair, Joyce (Isabella Rossellini), he offers a fast and funny discourse on the evolutionary demise of the male gender.
Later that night, Roger lets himself into Joyce’s apartment with a key he wasn’t given, but, in mistaken overconfidence, simply took. He finds himself less than welcome, but Joyce, inasmuch as he’s there already, will have some farewell pleasuring–with the proviso that he’s not to spend the night. Roger, who objectifies women, has met more than his match in Joyce, who is confident and knows what she wants and what she doesn’t. Roger, the user, has been used and tossed away like yesterday’s newspaper.
Unexpectedly, Roger’s nephew, Nick (Jesse Eisenberg), appears on his doorstep. He’ s in town for an interview at Columbia University, but what he would really like from his uncle is some instruction in the ways of the world. "Sex is everywhere," Roger advises him, "You have to attune yourself to it." And off they go to a meat-market bar where Roger instructs Nick in key methods of making a conquest. But when they share a table with Andrea (Elizabeth Berkley) and Sophie (Jennifer Beals) it becomes clear that Nick’s unassumed naivete is far more effective with the women than Roger’s cavalier manipulations.
The script of writer/director Dylan Kidd’s debut film is clever and observant, with a veritable flood of words for Roger to deliver. In a party scene, Roger describes to Nick the moment when a party turns, when late hour desperation sets in; the writing is so on-the-money that the audience fairly gasps with recognition.
Scott (The Spanish Prisoner, Spring Forward) handles the verbiage with the necessary slick facility, but he also subtly conveys Roger’s fundamental failure at his own game, his growing realization precipitated by his adventures with his nephew. Jesse Eisenberg is suitably artless as Nick, delivering a rounded character who has some ideas of his own and is willing to express them. Nick’s youthful idealism makes a perfect foil for the jaded worldliness of his uncle. Rossellini is quite perfect as the modern woman-in-charge, quietly confident, turning the tables as her character plays a role once exclusively the turf of men.
Kidd, obviously working on a limited budget, makes extended use of hand-held camera work here. Judicious use of a hand-held camera can lend a certain energy and spontaneity to a film, but in Roger Dodger, it is overdone to the point of the vertiginous. Sensitive filmgoers might consider preparing with Dramamine. Kidd also appears to have filmed in available light; as a result too much of the film shows faces deeply in shadow. That has a certain appropriateness in the bar scenes, but it carries over into other interiors, too. The music credits list nearly two dozen numbers, but the soundtrack sounds all the same: a nervous sort of sound which emphasizes aurally the jumpy visuals.
Despite poor production values, Roger Dodger holds the interest with the intelligence and insight of the story and characterizations. Maybe with a bigger budget next time around, Kidd will be able to deliver both.