Sunday, June 10, 2012

Overlooked Gems #35: Roger Dodger

Grade: 81 (B+)

Tonight, the fifth season of Mad Men wraps up. It’s been an astounding season for what’s debatably the best show on television, with Don Draper as less of a lothario than he has been in the past. But what if Don Draper went the other way? What if he spiraled deeper and deeper into alcohol and sex addiction. Dylan Kidd’s impressive 2002 debut film Roger Dodger takes a Don Draper-like character, drops him in the modern era, and shows him hopelessly losing touch as he’s faced with a moral dilemma.

Roger Swanson (Campbell Scott) is a cynical copywriter who spends his time expounding on the differences between men and women. After his boss/lover (Isabella Rossellini) dumps him, Roger’s awkward 16-year-old nephew Nick (Jesse Eisenberg in his debut) arrives. Nick is New York looking at schools, but he asks Roger for advice on how to talk to women. Roger takes Nick under his wing for a night on the town, where the two meet women and find that Nick’s awkward sweetness is more effective than Roger’s sex-talk.

Roger Dodger is at its best in the middle section, where Scott takes Eisenberg out on a double date of sorts with two women (Jennifer Beals and Elizabeth Berkley). Kidd’s strong use of close-ups and LaBute/Mamet style rat-a-tat dialogue fuels their sparring sessions, where the women slowly lose patience with Roger but are charmed by the awkward Nick, who isn’t the hopeless misogynist his uncle is. Roger has taught Nick the tricks of the trade- how to get a woman interested, how to glance at her without her knowing- but his tricks only get them so far, and they’re ultimately more interested in the nice kid whose self-consciousness hides a romantic streak. There’s a moment between Eisenberg and Berkley after Scott and Beals leave them alone that’s absolutely electrifying, while a first kiss sequence manages to move past Roger’s sleazy intentions into something much sweeter and more innocent.

The film wouldn’t work without two fantastic actors at the film’s center. Eisenberg’s neurotic charm hints at both his likable work in Zombieland and Adventureland and his work as pricklier neurotics in The Squid and the Whale and The Social Network. Scott is even better as a real bastard whose poisonous influence over his nephew just might corrupt him. It’s unfortunate that the film takes an unbelievable turn in the third act, regarding both where they end up and how Scott is humanized, but it’s a remarkable debut nonetheless from a director who’s strangely disappeared from the scene. 

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