The indie comedy Roger Dodger opens with an extended lunch-table conversation about the differences between men and women, with Campbell Scott holding court to seemingly amused coworkers, who chuckle even when he makes clichéd comments about women being unable to read road maps, or about the flashing "12:00" on their unset VCRs. Scott's calculatedly relaxed delivery of the speech—punctuated with slashing cigarette drags—keeps Roger Dodger from stalling out of the gate, as does the unusually tight-framed handheld camerawork. But with first-time writer-director Dylan Kidd at the helm, and too much sitcom-level dialogue at the outset, worry sets in. Is the audience really supposed to think that Scott (playing a New York ad man with a gift of gab and a love for the ladies) has his act together? Then, after Scott gets dumped by his lover/boss Isabella Rossellini, he hits a bar and tries to pick up women by bluntly pointing out their flaws. Not only does he strike out, but it's not even clear whether his observations are accurate. Then Roger Dodger begins to deepen. When Scott's doe-eyed 16-year-old nephew Jesse Eisenberg shows up and asks for advice on picking up women, the movie jumps headlong into a near-real-time journey through the New York club scene, including a roughly half-hour stretch where uncle and nephew meet an almost unrecognizable Jennifer Beals and Elizabeth Berkley and try to see how far they can get. The four trade verbal thrusts and parries, Kidd keeps them all in extreme close-up, and for 30 funny, poignant minutes, Roger Dodger achieves the woozy feeling of a night of drinking, where too much is revealed and relationships stay in flux. Even though the middle passage of the film essentially consists of four people discussing their philosophies of romance, the possibility that one or more of them might say or do something unfortunate generates a stimulating tension. Roger Dodger flags as it heads toward a moralistic ending, complete with a couple of contrived (albeit charged) sexual encounters, but it's heartening that it soars as long as it does. The point-counterpoint of the arrogant, self-loathing Scott and the charmingly awkward Eisenberg (who makes his uncle feel cool and wise) produces such a hum that Kidd has to bring them together again, in a coda that puts a beautiful frame on their happily absurd dynamic.
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