Cinema Signal:

Obsession and Culture: A Study of Sexual Obsession in Modern Fiction

. "Roger Dodger"

Writer Dylan Kidd's first directorial effort is a lesson in how to turn an overly glib and verbose sexhound into something that approaches a sympathetic character. It's not advertising copy executive Roger Simpson's (Campbell Scott) in-your-face charisma that's endearing, nor his deep knowledge of human sexuality, nor his hyper-articulate methodology in engaging pretty young women at bars in lively conversation that is the secret to this process. It may be in the underlying superficiality of his own makeup, revealed in his untiring drive to the nightly conquest, that accomplishes what seem like an impossibility.

Everything that Roger is and stands for is out front in every action he takes, in every diatribe he creates. It's all for the benefit of sex. He argues the evolution of humanity toward the day when science will provide all needs for procreation and that men will become little more than objects for recreational sex. His subtext is that the women in his company should jump to that conclusion sooner rather than later and hey, that's what he's here for. As a debater, he's shrill and somewhat embitteered, but versed in the scientific data that support his views and quick enough to counter all argument challenging his opinion, whether from men or women. He's also overly confident, overbearing and overdominant in a mixed crowd of friends and fellow employees.

How difficult it would be, then, to be told by his current boss and nighttime playmate Joyce (an aging but still attractive Isabella Rossellini) that their affair is over and that he needs to deal with it. He may have no problem with consoling himself at a pick up bar and displaying his truly masterful selling technique with the first female within sound of his voice. His approach is a combination of psychiatrist recognizing his subject's probable failings and insecurities, and a Rasputin-like healer who may be used to make everything better. But rejection is another matter, and he doesn't find his glibness of spirit in its acceptance. He's a hanger-on.

Into this critical mix enters his runaway nephew Nick (Jesse Eisenberg, from the 1999 TV series "Get Real") who shows up at Roger's office claiming he's in town for an interview at Columbia College. Soon, however, his real motive is exposed, which is to learn at the elbow of a master whose reputation even in Ohio as an ace womanizer makes Roger the one for a 16 year old virgin to learn about women and scoring. In a rare example of altruism for so selfish a rogue, Roger takes him under his wing and proceeds to use the nightlife of New York as his chalkboard.

In the journey, we get to meet the first targets of the two men's exploits, Andrea and Sophie (Elizabeth Berkley and Jennifer Beals), two habituees of the bar scene who are so classy you'd expect to see them on the cover of Vanity, Vogue or any other magazine starting with "V". Happily, they remain hip while playing the game, ready for an evening with a couple of characters who are so different that the ones they're used to meeting of a singles Friday night in the big town. Hip enough, that is, to not stick to the web Roger is spinning for his ward and for himself. To them, he's diversion but not captivating.

It turns out to be a more challenging night than Roger had anticipated, taking them to a variety of venues where a hookup of any kind might be made. Roger takes the difficulties in the stride of a man who's been there before and ready to do a little philosophizing when the rejections line up. Nephew Nick's desire for experience is realized in more dimensions than his student mind might have conceived. And the flood tide of words steadies to a gentle trickle as the end of the night is shabbily reached.

There's another day, but for that act you need to see this quite singular character study which has its humor, pathos and drama in an interesting and original mix. Its verbosity at the start gave me the expectation of an animated "My Dinner With Andre" about sex, but it travels into enough circles of action to bring its theme into more far reaching corners.

Casting is exemplary, starting with an actor who could pull off the sheer expository volume of the part, and whom we've seen in "The Spanish Prisoner" and "Delivering Milo". Eisendrath is believable, perhaps a bit too insecure to accept in this context, but does a yeoman's job. Beals and Berkley are nothing if not stimulatingly in control of their assignments.

The department that fails somewhat is in the all too frequent signs of a very strung out budget, with lighting (by cinematographer Joaquin Baca-Asay) so feeble as to envision streetlamps and fast film as its primary means, and a troubling hand-held camera for over-the-shoulder shots that as often obscured the speaking actor as not. These are technique options often taken by the festival circuit for art, and as excuses for the first time director who has to save his budget for the big scenes.

These production weaknesses don't sink the film if you attach more importance to the strength of the script and the portrayals. It felt like a little more than its 104 minutes.

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                                      ~~  Jules Brenner  


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Roger pursues his nightly objective and trains the kid

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