Roger Dodger

Sleeping with the enemy

The "toxic bachelor" we've been hearing so much about recently makes a memorable appearance in Roger Dodger, Dylan Kidd's quirkily impressive debut feature. According to the predatory advertising copywriter Roger Swanson (Campbell Scott), "sex is all around us", you just have to know where and when to look. Best be quick about it, though, because it won't be long before technology and evolution render the male species obsolete; in other words, there will come a time when men won't be required for heavy lifting or even for sperm donation.

Roger should know, too, since he himself has just had a foretaste of this unhappy eventuality. His boss (Isabella Rossellini), whose bed he had been sharing for a while, has downsized him with glacial aplomb: "I have told you I no longer wish to see you socially. Find a way to deal with it." Ouch. Still, it takes more than a single rejection to blunt this swordsman, and soon he's out on the prowl in Manhattan with his 16-year-old nephew Nick (Jesse Eisenberg), an earnest youth from Ohio who wants to learn about women. Roger is a practised and indeed professional liar: as an adman, his aim is "to make people feel bad" - to fool them into thinking they're missing something - and as a lothario, his aim is to "hook" a woman with a line, then reel her in. "You think women have a clue what goes on up here?" he asks Nick, tapping his head.

One of the delights of Kidd's movie is the way the tutor is never quite in control of his pupil. Having given Nick a swift primer in the art of bar-room subterfuge, Roger lures a couple of stunners to their table. But it transpires that Andrea (Elizabeth Berkley) and Sophie (Jennifer Beals) are less taken with his cynical swagger than with Nick's straight-from-the-heart approach. Seeing how charmed they are by his gentleness, Roger cuts in: "Have you met my nephew? His name is Jesus". Kidd is also very subtle about letting Roger's mask slip occasionally to reveal the desperation beneath. Later, when Sophie treats the boy to his first real kiss, Roger, consumed with wonder and envy, turns to Andrea expectantly: "Oh go on", he wheedles, "for symmetry." Then, seeing that friendliness is all they're offering, he turns nasty, and the women walk off in disgust. Nice going, stud!

With the exit of the women the film's mood suffers a slight wobble. Berkley and Beals aren't on screen for very long, but they light it gloriously while they are. (Berkley, who has had to carry around the ball and chain of Showgirls, turns out to be a pretty good actress). One also begins to notice the selfconscious murk of the photography, its jerkiness presumably meant to suggest the nervous energies that are driving Roger forward. I suppose the rough-and-ready style is to be expected in a film that took only 20 days and just over $1m to shoot, but the foregrounding of crowds and cars in the street scenes does occasionally feel like a tourist who hasn't yet mastered the focus on his videocam.

The screenplay, however - quick, whip-smart, a bit nasty - never flags, and nor does Campbell Scott in nailing every line. A story attaches to its development: Kidd, who carried his script with him at all times, was in a New York café when Scott walked in and sat at the table next to his. Plucking up his courage he approached the actor and made his pitch. He bought it. One wonders now who did whom the bigger favour. Scott's somewhat bland handsomeness may have been his misfortune, because he's much more interesting than the nice guy he's usually been asked to portray. The danger here would have been to cast a more flamboyant actor who might have overwhelmed the role and everybody else around him.

Scott is clever enough to use Roger's glib patter not just as a shtick to beat people with but as an unwitting tool of self-revelation. When, with hapless Nick in tow, he crashes a party to which he has been specifically not invited, the host asks him suavely, "Is it your mission in life to humiliate yourself?" "More of a hobby," replies Roger. By the time his moment of defeat arrives, he doesn't even have to say anything, so expertly has Scott prepared us for it. He simply lights up a cigarette, like a condemned man. (I liked the retro touch of Roger's silver cigarette case, perhaps a sly tip of the hat to George Sanders, cad of cads).

The film faintly recalls The Last Detail, another story about a cynical reprobate taking a young man under his grubby wing. Jack Nicholson's Navy signalman has to escort a teenage offender (Randy Quaid) to prison but first takes a boozy weekend detour to help the kid lose his virginity. The irony of both films is that it's the older man who actually learns something, mainly about innocence and why it's worth protecting. Both films climax with a fight, though the sulphurous brothel that is Nick and Roger's terminus has nothing on the wintry desolation of Nicholson handing his young charge over to an eight-year stretch in the brig. The innocent of Roger Dodger gets off lightly, and it's a testament to Jesse Eisenberg's impressionable Nick that we feel glad that he does.

It has also been compared to In the Company of Men, and in the appalled fascination with which it eavesdrops on the modern sexual predator there are echoes of Neil LaBute's corrosive locker-room talk. But Kidd takes a more forgiving view, and implies that the cocksure male isn't so sure of anything any more, least of all his cock. Maybe technology and evolution really are catching up. That's why I liked the ambiguity of the final scene, in which Roger goes back to school and grandstands before a group of nervous adolescents. Is he going back to basics, or is it that teenage boys are the only audience he can still impress?

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