Roger Swanson (Campbell Scott) is a fast-talking, fast-living advertising copywriter, who spends every waking minute looking at, studying and talking to women, deciding who his next conquest will be. On the day Roger is dumped by his boss Joyce (Isabella Rossellini), with whom he was having a fling, his 16-year-old nephew Nick (Jesse Eisenberg) turns up at his Manhattan office, demanding a lesson in the mysterious ways of the opposite sex.
Roger Dodger is one of those overtly-theatrical American indie flicks in which words speak a lot louder than actions. Debuting writer/director Dylan Kidd sets his film over a single day, and Campbell Scott not only stays on screen pretty much throughout, he also barely stops talking. Whether expounding his theories on the future evolution of gender to his workmates, psycho-analysing a pretty office worker at a bar, or getting an intended conquest to reveal how she lost her virginity, Roger has an opinion on anything and everything sexual. Little wonder he jumps at the chance to teach Nick what he knows about the ladies. Kidd writes dynamic, witty dialogue, that may not always be the kind of thing real people say, but like David Mamet’s, never fails to impress.
There’s a wonderfully funny scene at the beginning of Roger and Nick’s nighttime odyssey, where the uncle smuggles his nervous young protégé into a bar, and they get talking to a pair of attractive, sophisticated women (Elizabeth Berkley and Jennifer Beals). Roger’s empty bluster quickly gives way to Nick’s genuine youthful charm, the girls astonished that such a vulgar letch like Roger could have such a sweet young nephew.
The first half of the films is relatively light-hearted, as the wide-eyed Nick tries to keep track of Roger’s barrage of observations and pick-up customs, captured by some disorienting camerawork. But as their night continues, Kidd subtly switches the focus of the film onto Roger himself, his bitter, immature reaction to Joyce dumping him, the realisation that for whatever he tells Nick, he goes home alone most nights, and the hint of an unhappy, possibly abused childhood that has caused a major rift between himself and Nick’s mother. That said, we’re not really in Neil LaBute territory, and by the end Roger is given the chance to (slightly) redeem himself without learning any fatuous ‘life lesson’ that a lesser director might have opted for.
There is a magnetic performance from Campbell Scott, while Jesse Eisenberg captures well that awkward no-man’s-land of 16, bombarded with adult urges, but with no idea how to deal with them. The women occupy less screen-time, but Rossellini and Beals really make the most of their roles, and while it may have been a slow-climb back for Elizabeth Berkley, she’s good enough here to make Showgirls seem like a distant nightmare.
Ultimately Roger Dodger doesn’t try to say anything profound about gender roles in the modern city – it’s more a portrait of loneliness, perceptive and often uncomfortable, but undercut by warmth and wit.