With Ben Affleck engaged to J.Lo and Leonardo DiCaprio pushing 30, Hollywood is lately like a regiment full of soldiers too worn out to fight the good fight any longer; hence a crucial question looms like a dark cloud over the industry: Which young male face will be on the next cover of Teen Beat? This season, Hollywood has fought tooth and claw to answer that question. The result? Bad-boy Kieran Culkin in “Igby Goes Down,” dimple-chinned Jake Gyllenhall in “The Good Girl” and “Lovely and Amazing,” and now, in “Roger Dodger,” sloe-eyed Jesse Eisenberg, brother to the curly-haired Pepsi-commercial girl Hallie Kate Eisenberg. Mr. Eisenberg is the spitting image of his sister, complete with the same lisp and stutter, the same messy brown hair and lanky frame. Yet in him, there is also a fine actor, and certainly a well-deserving heir to Leo’s throne.
What’s interesting about this trend is that all these new young hunks have made their most recent on-screen appearances in indie films, and well-made indie films to boot. This is a promising, if surprising, move for such a greedy industry, and one that fills this film critic with hope. “Roger Dodger,” which won the Best Feature Film award at the Tribeca Film Festival in May, is writer/director Dylan Kidd’s filmmaking debut. Teamed with Eisenberg and his (somewhat) older echo, actor Campbell Scott, Kidd has crafted a thoughtful and wickedly funny film. If these bright young things are the future of American cinema, then Hollywood is in good hands.
“Roger Dodger” has all the trappings of romantic comedy, and in its basic premise there are hints of “What Women Want,” “About A Boy” and just about every other cynical-womanizer-changed-by-love scenario that’s ever been put on the screen. “Roger,” however, takes a shredder to that exhausted trope, and what emerges from the wreckage is a raw look at the male ego as it moves into the 21st Century. It’s not a pretty picture.
Roger (Campbell Scott) is a cynical, indifferent thirtysomething working in advertising. In the movie’s opening scene, he uses a series of well-developed arguments, delivered with the slimy confidence of a litigator, to prove that sexual intercourse will soon become obsolete. Women, he claims, don’t need men to get pleasure from sex. Why else would God put the clitoris outside the vagina?
Although the film plays with convention, it also comments on it. Roger’s boss Joyce (Isabella Rosselini), with whom he is having an affair, breaks it off early in the movie. Kidd successfully uses this subplot to give us insight into Roger’s tender side, and the kicker is that he does have one, even before he is “transformed.” For the rest of the film, even as he simultaneously charms and repulses the other women he tries to pick up at bars, Roger wears one of Joyce’s handkerchiefs in his breast pocket. The film is trying to tell us something: it won’t be about a man who is transformed from a Scrooge to a Casanova, but about someone who wears his anguish like a Hugo Boss sports coat. His offensive pick-up lines are laced with an honest but well-hidden fear of loneliness.
Enter the foil to Roger’s inflated ego – his nephew Nick (Eisenberg), a Midwestern high-school nerd who shows up at his office one day after an interview at Columbia. Nick begs Roger to help him out with the ladies. He doesn’t want to return to Ohio the same way he left it, as a virgin, and Roger agrees to give Nick an all-night crash course in the art of seduction. What follows is a series of hilarious, tender and often disturbing episodes giving both boys new insight about matters of love and loss – although not in the way you’d expect. This is a movie first and foremost about education, about what we learn about ourselves in the process of teaching others, and about the shame and happiness that often snarl into a knot under the thick skins of our own pride.
Kidd never lets us forget that “Roger Doger” is an indie flick. The locations are filmed in heavy shadow, yet the darkness is offset by subtle hints of light, like the blurred headlights of taxis, the sweat that dews on Nick’s forehead and the shiny makeup worn by the two girls Nick and Roger meet at a bar (Elizabeth Berkely and Jennifer Beals). All of this light is scrupulously suggestive of the hopefulness that keeps people wading through the dark world of the Manhattan nightlife. Kidd sometimes shoots his characters from across the street, forcing them to compete for screen time with taxis and 5th Avenue shoppers. With this two-men-in-a-crowd dynamic, Kidd subtly suggests the universality of his story; Roger and Nick could be any of us, we’ve probably bumped into them, in fact, somewhere between LaGuardia and Tiffany’s.
Eisenberg is the essence of purity. He’s like a puppy. His cheekbones alone are worth the movie ticket. Scott’s precision is razor-sharp, and Rossellini is alternately sympathetic and lovely as Roger’s latest victim.
At the end of “Roger Dodger,” just when you’re sure the movie can go nowhere but down from the crescendo it has whirled itself into, Kidd pushes his film just a little bit further. And the touching hilarity of the film’s final moment is a revelation in satisfaction. Just know that you’ll leave with Mr. Eisenberg’s face on your mind. You might not be able to get him out of your head for days.