We open on a conversation taking place between fellow workers in a restaurant,
all seated around a table. One of them is on a riff, going into impressive amounts
of detail with regard to a thesis he has regarding sex. The writing is razor-sharp.
After the opening scene finishes, however, so do any similarities between Roger
Dodger and Reservoir Dogs. Dylan Kidd’s first feature is not
going to shake up the world of cinema in the way that Quentin Tarantino’s did.
But it does mark the arrival of a very assured talent, both as a director and
as a writer.
Campbell Scott plays the eponymous antihero, in the kind of role which gets
actors to sign on as producers and persuade the likes of Isabella Rosselini
to join in as well. Roger is a self-loathing, womanising misogynist who barely
succeeds in disguising his sourness with flashily aggressive patter. In the
time-honoured tradition of Don Giovanni, we see many of this famous
lothario’s attempts at pulling women, but he never succeeds.
Where the Don loves women too much, however, Roger hates them: his pick-up
lines are normally insults, and he ensures that his desire for sex always trumps
any friendliness he might feel. His chauvinism also shows up in his attitude
towards rejection: he can dump women, but no woman is ever going to get away
with dumping him.
Roger’s brilliant opening monologue is more than just flashy writing:
it actually serves as an insight into his character. (Mr Pink’s thesis about
Like A Virgin, on the other hand, tells us more about Quentin Tarantino
than it does about Mr Pink.) Roger maintains that men are doomed to obsolescence,
and that women, in a few generations, are going to work out how to get on just
fine without them. Whether he actually believes this doesn’t matter: it is still
revealing of his view that women are something which men want and try to obtain;
men, on the other hand, are little more than devices which women use for certain
ends. For all his bravado, Roger doesn’t believe that he actually has anything
to offer women: rather, he has to use his gift of the gab to talk his undeserving
self into bed with them. He would be shocked at stories
saying that girls are now more aggressive than boys when it comes to chasing
the opposite sex.
Roger’s insecurities help to flesh out someone who might otherwise be little
more than a caricature. His job gives the character a bit of depth as well: Roger
doesn’t work in a macho environment such as a trading floor or building site, but rather as a copywriter at an advertising agency, who describes his job as
"making people feel bad about themselves". But if Roger is a compelling
and believable screen presence, the main reason is Campbell Scott’s performance:
nuanced yet almost out of control at the same time.
After creating such a monstrous central character, Kidd makes his movie
palatable by placing Roger in the role of mentor to his 16-year-old nephew,
Nick (Jesse Eisenberg), who flatters Roger into taking him out on the town.
They meet a pair of women out on the town on a Friday night (Elizabeth Berkley
and Jennifer Beals) and astonishingly manage to persuade the sultrily-dressed
duo to join them for the evening. In a rather predictable turn of events, Nick
has rather more success with the ladies than Roger does, which brings out some
very ugly jealousy in the latter.
The structure of the film is interesting. Roger and Nick’s night on the town
gets steadily worse, ending with a fight in a garbage-strewn alleyway. Then,
in a rapid flurry of short final scenes, Roger first seems to achieve some kind
of redemption, and then reverts to his old self.
It seems, although it’s never spelled out, that Roger gets fired for his Friday-night
antics, and that the realisation of how out of bounds he went sobers him up
somewhat, both figuratively and literally. The film’s subplot regarding drinking
should probably have been made more important or dropped entirely: it brings
up the heavy subject of alcoholism running in a family, but never addresses
it face-on. Roger is a bad drunk, for sure, but it’s not clear whether the film
blames his behaviour on his drinking or not.
At the very end of the film, the (presumably) unemployed Roger visits Nick
at his school, and shows no sign of having changed at all. It’s an unsatisfactory
ending: we don’t know what’s happened to Roger, we’re not sure whether Nick
has learned anything at all, and none of the plot’s loose ends are tied up.
It seems as though once Kidd and Scott created the character of Roger, there
was little creative energy left over for anything else. The camerawork is another
case in point: most of the movie is filmed with a jittery hand-held camera,
which has no particular effect except to irritate the audience. But Kidd deserves
credit for going with film for his first feature, when it’s so much easier to
use DV these days.
He also managed to prevent Roger Dodger from being a New York Film.
It’s set in the city, but there are no identifying features, no sense of place:
nowhere will a New Yorker experience the "I-know-that-intersection"
feeling which is so common in New York indy flicks and Woody Allen films. Personally,
I like that feeling, but I do recognise it as being rather self-indulgent.
Even so, I somehow doubt that Roger Dodger is going to do particularly well
nationwide. It doesn’t really appeal to any particular demographic, and Campbell
Scott is certainly not capable of opening a film on his own. Dylan Kidd, on
the other hand, could well be set for much bigger and better things.