Billed as the first feature to be shot in Gotham after 9/11, scripter-helmer Dylan Kidd’s debut effort rarely comes blinking out of the darkness and into the light, its twilit ambiance viewed as a succession of upscale bars and hip corporate hangouts. Pic fits into that weird, dialogue-heavy quasi-genre that includes “In the Company of Men” and “The Business of Strangers” where high-stakes sexual power games mix with cutthroat office politics. For “Roger Dodger’s” antihero, an advertising copywriter, the lines between business and pleasure have irrevocably blurred. Campbell Scott’s tour-de-force performance as the date-obsessed Roger is the movie as, within a 48-hour timeframe, his arsenal of clever verbal riffs and razzle-dazzle pickup lines unravel into run-on bitterness and bile. To be sure, Isabella Rossellini, Jennifer Beals and Elizabeth Berkley, as the women whom he signally fails to impress, have their share of vitriolic ripostes. This black comedy, which took best narrative film honors at the Tribeca Film Festival, should find a healthy indie audience; Roger’s endless varieties of sexual self-sabotage prove as fascinating to watch as a 12-car pileup.
Roger’s job, as he explains it, is to make people feel bad about themselves so he can persuade them that whatever he’s selling will make them feel better. He has diligently applied this formula to picking up women but, somewhere along the way, he’s lost sight of the second part of the equation, his come-ons now reading as thinly veiled insults: “Let me guess. Low self-esteem and pre-menopausal desperation drove you to pursue a series of abusive relationships?”
When Nick (Jesse Eisenberg), his 16-year-old nephew, comes to the Big Apple from the Midwest seeking sexual wisdom and an end to his virginity, Roger kicks into gear, recognizing a receptive audience when he sees one. The irony is that Roger’s voyeuristic modus vivendi is far more suited to a horny teen, while young Nick displays a sensitivity, sincerity and political correctness beyond his years, making him irresistible to the older women who are his uncle’s chosen prey. The night ends badly, on a clunkily melodramatic note, as Roger and Nick roll around on garbage bags in the alleyway of a basement bordello.
Roger’s dysfunctionality is meant to expose the exploitation, sexism and soullessness of corporate human relations, and Kidd’s script riffs the peculiarly 21st-century Internet twists on the old sexual shell game (the instant analyses of likes and dislikes seen as lifestyle-determined buying patterns).
But whatever message the picture seeks to deliver pales before the mystery that is Roger. Scott (who also exec produced) flies off with Roger’s contradictions, as the exec promises insights into the nature of pleasure, sexual objectification, anti-feminist backlash or male immaturity that, thankfully, he refuses to deliver upon, deftly avoiding profundity in a dazzling display of intricately worked shallowness, turning everything back into pure performance. Unfortunately, the well-meaning movie never really rises to the daring hollowness of his performance, which takes its place in a rogue’s gallery of tightrope-walking confidence men from W.C. Fields’ Larson E. Whipsnade to Burt Lancaster’s Elmer Gantry and Tony Curtis’ Sidney Falco.
Lensing by Joaquin Baca-Asay lends a kind of velvet seduction to the New York night, and Craig Wedren’s score lays in some unobtrusive atmospheric density.