Impatient and abrasive, drop-dead arrogant but smart as hell, Manhattan advertising copywriter Roger Swanson is the kind of mesmerizing talker who can take over a movie as surely as a great raconteur can dominate a dinner table, and in Campbell Scott the part has the kind of gifted, assured actor who can turn it into one of the defining roles of a lifetime.
But it is a mark of the smarts and sophistication of "Roger Dodger," an intimate look at a pivotal day in a bad boy's life that Scott, dazzling as he is, is not the only reason to watch.
Written and directed by Dylan Kidd, this astute film not only comes up with convincing foils to counter Roger's attacks, but also displays an open-ended, non-schematic sensibility both welcome and unexpected.
Still, it is Scott's work as the savagely articulate Roger, a tireless would-be seducer, bottomlessly self-confident and oblivious to rejection, that is the film's glistening and provocative centerpiece.
We meet him having drinks with colleagues from work, including the alluring Joyce (Isabella Rossellini), his sometime girlfriend as well as his boss. Everyone at the table is clever (did I say this was New York?), but Roger is pushing hardest, talking about sex in the city and coming up with glib, rapid-fire pronouncements on the order of "for women, intellectual and sexual fulfillment were never intended to intersect."
What Roger cares about is not advertising, not what he calls "thinking up ways to make people feel bad." He is forever on the prowl, in the most cynical way, for women, treating any interaction as part of a game of trophy-hunting and seduction. He prides himself on his knowledge of the opposite sex, but in truth Roger has a pimp's contempt for women, a view of them as simple beings who can be manipulated, controlled, bent to his will.
Although Scott does not ordinarily play characters this corrupt, it was a stroke of good fortune for "Roger Dodger" that he took the role. Without seeming to try, he gives Roger forlorn, almost wistful aspects, creating a jerk we still hold out hope for. As writer-director Kidd put it in an interview, "Campbell brings some weird, intangible thing that makes you want to give him the benefit of the doubt."
In a more conventional film, a character this reprehensible would inevitably get a brusque comeuppance, falling from grace in an obvious, predictable way. But something less expected happens to Roger Swanson. He gets a visit from his 16-year-old nephew Nick, just in from Ohio in search of an uncle his mother dismissively refers to as "some kind of a ladies' man."
At loose ends and flattered to be asked for help in figuring out women (as well as oblivious to the fact that he's the last person who should be asked), Roger takes his impressionable nephew on a tour of after-dark New York, an adventure that turns out to hold new experiences and surprises for both.
One of the best things about Scott's performance is that rather than obliterate everyone else in the film, it nourishes the work of the rest of the cast. This is especially true with Jesse Eisenberg, the fine young actor who gives Nick an appealing earnestness that strikes the right balance between being awkward and having a nascent but very real sense of self.
Equally strong are the two young women, memorably played by Jennifer Beals and Elizabeth Berkley, who unexpectedly hook up with Roger and Nick at a bar. They become the essential first step in the complicated dynamic that develops between the two men, a process of mutual coming of age in which both Nick and Roger struggle to come to terms with what really matters in this life and what does not.
Joaquin Baca-Asay's hand-held, almost peekaboo camerawork adds intimacy and immediacy to the proceedings. Baca-Asay is a longtime associate of writer-director Kidd, who made industrial films and videos for years before getting the chance to direct this, his first feature.
In fact, "Roger Dodger" is so confidently made it hardly feels like a debut. Kidd has made the rare film that's more interesting and complex than it sounds, a feature that shares with its characters a willingness to take risks and ends up, like them, in places they never expected to be.
MPAA rating: R, for sexual content and language.
Times guidelines: Mature subject matter, sexual situations.
Campbell Scott ... Roger
Jesse Eisenberg ... Nick
Isabella Rossellini ... Joyce
Elizabeth Berkley ... Andrea
Jennifer Beals ... Sophie
Released by Artisan Entertainment. Director Dylan Kidd. Producers Anne Chaisson, Dylan Kidd, George Van Buskirk. Executive producers Martin Garvey, David Newman, Campbell Scott, Bruce Cowan, Michael Lauer. Screenplay Dylan Kidd. Cinematographer Joaquin Baca-Asay. Editor Andy Kier. Costumes Amy Westcott. Music Craig Wedren. Production design Stephen Beatrice. Art director Dina Varano. Set decorator Brenna Giffin. Running time: 1 hour, 45 minutes.
In limited release.Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times