Director : Dylan Kidd
Screenplay : Dylan Kidd
MPAA Rating : R
Year of Release : 2002
Stars : Campbell Scott (Roger Swanson), Jesse Eisenberg (Nick), Isabella Rossellini (Joyce), Elizabeth Berkley (Andrea), Jennifer Beals (Sophie), Mina Badie (Donna), Ben Shenkman (Donovan), Chris Stack (Chris)
In first-time writer/director Dylan Kidd’s Roger Dodger, Campbell Scott, who is known primarily for playing ordinary and decent characters, gives a bold, bravura performance as Roger Swanson, a fast-talking, shallow, misogynistic ad copy writer taking his 16-year-old nephew on a one-night whirlwind ride through New York City in an effort to help the eager kid lose his virginity. It’s not the world’s best premise, but it establishes an open stage on which Scott can scorch the screen with a series of uber-confident, take-no-prisoners speeches in which he pontificates on sex, gender relations, and ... well ... sex and gender relations.
As Roger puts it early on, “Sex is everywhere!” In today’s culture, he’s not wrong, and in some ways Roger Dodger plays as a hard-edged indictment of the results of complete sexual liberation—simply put, when there’s no mystery left anymore. Yes, it has removed the shackles of too many repressed people and removed human sexuality from the closet of taboos and embarrassments, but at the same time it has created men like Roger, who think of little else and hunt it down. Roger can be seen as the dark opposite of Campbell’s character in Singles (1992), a romantic whose idea of romance was encapsulated by Robert Doisneau’s famous kiss photograph. Roger has no such illusions. He is a predator, and his early speech to his slightly geeky nephew, Nick (Jesse Eisenberg), about how to check out women without their knowing it is a disturbingly accurate summary of just how easily women are objectified by the male gaze.
Of course, this is not something women are unaware of, and some of the film’s most fascinating passages take place between Roger and Nick and a pair of attractive women they meet in an upscale bar, Sophie (Jennifer Beals) and Andrea (Elizabeth Berkley). (Yes, this means that the star of Flashdance and Showgirls play a couple of friends—surely an intentional casting in-joke.) Sophie and Andrea represent the positives of sexual liberation—they are clearly experienced and open about that experience, but they haven’t degraded sexuality to a sport of catch-’em-and-bag-’em in the way Roger has. They are genuinely touched by Nick’s naïve, virginal approach to life and love; he ends up having the best lines not because they’re witty and penetrating, but rather because they’re honest and from the heart. Despite all his uncle’s lessons, Nick is a terrible liar and the truth keeps spilling out in interesting ways. Sophie and Andrea pick up on this, and while it doesn’t get Nick into their beds, it gets them into their hearts, which is a place someone like Roger will never be.
Some might argue that Roger would never want to be a in woman’s heart, but Kidd supplies us with a subplot that might suggest otherwise. Early in the film, we learn that Roger has been having a secret affair with his boss, and older woman named Joyce (Isabella Rossellini) who is clearly his female mirror. Joyce treats sex in the same way Roger does: she pursues it as if it’s worth all the gold in the world, but treats it as meaningless. Much to Roger’s chagrin , she dumps him, telling him without a blink that she “no longer wants to see him socially” and that he needs find “a way to deal with it.” This is not something Roger can accept, and it is left ambiguous whether it is because he simply can’t tolerate rejection or if somewhere in the recesses of his blackened heart he genuinely likes Joyce and doesn’t want to let her go.
It is largely due to Campbell Scott’s performance that Roger comes across as complex as he does. As written by Kidd, he is a one-dimensional jerk, an oversexed urban hunter with little conscience and too much time on his hands. Kidd supplies Scott with some of the most incisive and truly enjoyable dialogue in any film this year—you may not agree with what he has to say, but listening to Roger’s confident banter is truly absorbing. Yet, Scott’s performance gives the character an added dimension, one of inner sadness and loneliness that taints even his most deplorable speeches with potential sympathy. What Scott conveys best is that Roger is hollow inside and he knows it, and all the grandstanding he does is little more than a façade.
As a director, Kidd makes Roger Dodger consistently interesting, choosing a deliberately showy visual style that involves almost exclusive hand-held camerawork, extreme shallow focus, and constant obstructions. Many of his compositions involve something blurry in the foreground blocking out part of our view, which creates a sense of voyeurism (the most extreme example of this is when Roger is giving Nick his speech on how to check out women, which is shot from the other side of the streets as if we were hiding the bushes). Sometimes, this approach feels a bit heavy-handed, but in large part it works quite well to underscore how, when it comes to gender relationships, we are all voyeurs, constantly observing our object of affection, but never able to fully get inside.
Copyright © 2002 James Kendrick