USA, 2002. Rated R. 105 minutes.
Campbell Scott, Jesse Eisenberg, Isabella Rossellini, Jennifer Beals,
Elizabeth Berkley, Mina Badie, Ben Shenkman, Chris Stack
|Grade: B||Review by Carlo Cavagna|
f there is an actor more steadfastly committed to independent cinema than Campbell Scott, I don't know who it is. Sure, Harvey Keitel gets a lot of press for his support of first-time directors, most notably Quentin Tarantino (Reservoir Dogs), but he regularly appears in big budget movies like U-571 and Red Dragon. Parker Posey is known as the indie girl, but she too turns up in movies like You've Got Mail. On the other hand, Scott's only credits that can be considered traditional Hollywood movies are Singles and Dying Young, and both were early in his career. Instead, beginning with one of the first movies to take an honest, unprejudiced look at the AIDS crisis, Longtime Companion, Scott has sweated in low-budget, artistically ambitious productions like Big Night (which he co-directed), The Daytrippers, Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle, and The Spanish Prisoner.
Yet even self-ruling actors like Scott get typecast, it seems. Despite the occasional change of pace (a luxury liner's staff director who resembles a German drill sergeant in The Imposters, for example), Scott usually plays relatively straightforward, what-you-see-is-what-you-get nice guys. When you think of unctuous womanizers, you do not think, "Campbell Scott." When you think of twisted, injurious egomaniacs, you do not think, "Campbell Scott." When you think of unreliable protagonists whose every word you must doubt, you do not think, "Campbell Scott." Scott is one of the least intuitive casting choices imaginable for Roger Dodger's titular Roger, who is all of the above and more. Roger fancies himself a smooth, irresistible seducer whom women can't resist. The truth is that immature Roger can't handle being dumped by his boss (Isabella Rossellini of Blue Velvet and Big Night). While his preferred tactic with the opposite sex involves breaking down their self-esteem, Roger's picture of himself has almost nothing to do with reality. Roger has been kicked to the curb, and he doesn't quite believe it.
Just as the rejection is beginning to sink in, his nephew, awkward sixteen-year-old Nick (Jesse Eisenberg) pays him a surprise visit from Ohio. Having heard Roger described as a ladies man, Nick wants to learn his secrets. Glad for the distraction (not that he's aware of it), Roger takes the young grasshopper under his wing to show him the ways of the world--Roger's world, that is. "Sex is everywhere," he announces, before instructing Nick in the proper ways to ogle women. As Nick and Roger tour New York City's nightlife, Jennifer Beals (Flashdance), Elizabeth Berkley (Showgirls), and Mina Badie (The Anniversary Party) become test subjects for Roger's lessons in seduction.
Though Roger is hateful, he is consistently mesmeric. Scott's layered performance eventually allows the audience glimpses through Roger's smoke and mirrors without being too obvious. At the same time, the purpose of the evening--building up Roger's ego--imperceptibly shifts, becoming more about Nick. Roger never becomes sympathetic (trying to make him so would have been a futile and clumsy mistake) but the audience grows to understand him. The pleasingly ambiguous ending leaves the audience to sort out just how much Roger and Nick have learned.
It's nothing short of bizarre to see Scott like this, and he never would have been cast if it weren't for a chance coffee shop encounter with aspiring filmmaker Dylan Kidd. Indeed, the film would never have been made. To his credit, Scott, who serves as one of the executive producers and recruited the women in the cast, actually read the unsolicited script thrust at him. What other actor would have?
Eisenberg, previously a regular on FOX-TV's Get Real, is almost as impressive, balancing well his contradictory mix of feelings for his intimidating uncle. The women's contributions are solid. Despite an age difference over ten years, Beals and Berkley are peas in a pod--both with dance training, both making their major film debuts in highly visible, sex-symbol roles, and both struggling with their careers immediately after. Kidd, who originally conceived of their characters' relationship as antagonistic, soon saw he had to take advantage of the actors' excellent chemistry and made them best friends. The rest of the film, however, isn't quite up to snuff.
Scott's brilliance and a solid script are undermined by amateurish directorial choices, forced artiness that a more experienced director might not have felt pressured to attempt. The most egregious example is the confused climactic scene. As it takes place in a seedy underground establishment, Kidd's choices (hand-held camerawork, which Kidd uses throughout, in cramped, poorly lit quarters) are certainly understandable from a conceptual point of view. That does not, however, alter the fact that you can't see a damn thing. You have no idea what is happening, and must reconstruct the scene by its outcome. Kidd has built an artificial wall between film and audience at the most crucial point of his film.
Though Roger Dodger is a fine feature debut, it is unquestionably that--a debut. It doesn't matter most of the time, however, because Scott controls the screen. Roger Dodger deserves to be seen despite its missteps, and Scott deserves Academy consideration. Whether he'll get it for such a small movie and challenging character is a different story.
© October 2002 by AboutFilm.Com and the author.
Images © 2002 Artisan Entertainment. All Rights Reserved.
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