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Roger Dodger (Dylan Kidd, 2002)

   

    The opening scenes of Dylan Kiddís debut feature Roger Dodger work overtime in establishing Campbell Scottís boorish but smooth-talking, titular character, and they are excruciating. With his incessant, empty glibness and predatory impulses as the only thing on display, the film lacks anything resembling a moral center. He possesses a dangerously overblown sense of self-confidence that empowers him to act as a nonstop provocateur. The black hole that is Roger threatens to suck all life from the universe, or at least all of Lower Manhattan, but finally the prologue ends with the arrival of Nick, his vaguely geeky, wide-eyed, sixteen-year-old nephew from Ohio. By this point, Roger has been so boldly presented as a shallow, characterless bastard that Nick, a virgin still in high school whoís looking for sexual pointers, is just about the only foil that could possibly make sense. After all, as the film demonstrates time and again, any adult would find a dolt like Roger too easy to ignore to create real confrontation. Still, as their relationship quickly turns into a mentorship in lady-killing, it strains credibility in its own ways.

   

    Set mostly during one extended night of bar and party-hopping, Roger Dodger is far more focused more on the nuances of its charactersí dialogue and the establishment of mood than the machinations of its thin plot. Itís got a premise thatís so slight that it might appear original, but it certainly provides plenty opportunities for more verbal slickness. Shot using shaky cameras and ever-shifting focus, the film achieves a degree of spontaneity at the sake of glossiness, and at times, after Nick arrives on the scene, the relentless fluency and speed of the myriad conversations feel almost impressionistic. Nickís initiation into a world that he seemingly hadnít considered before coming to the city creates a far more interesting emotional arc than anything that the hopelessly self-absorbed Roger feels, but since Nick only exists as a Gallant to Rogerís Goofus, his character feels somewhat artificial. It only rarely becomes less than apparent that lurking behind these clever characters thereís a cleverer screenwriter (director Kidd in this case), delighting himself as he takes turns setting each of them up for a verbal fall. That sort of narrative scheming seems like a trick Roger himself would pull, and when it becomes clear that Kidd isnít above it, it makes it tougher to accept Nickís innocence, no matter how good a job Jesse Eisenberg does while playing him. Itís not surprising then, considering the lack of a perspective that truly counteracts Rogerís, that the finaleís attempt to provide comeuppance for him disappoints. Instead of challenging him head on, at the peak of his persuasive powers, it reduces him and reflects upon him, without offering much new insight. Despite any such frustrations, however, the pleasures that crop up during the night spent with him are almost enough to make Roger worth recommending. 

* * 1/2 

12-05-02 

Jeremy Heilman