Roger and Me

Roger Dodger exposes a self-styled lady's man

"I think of ways to make people feel bad," is how Roger Swanson (Campbell Scott) describes his vocation. The title character of Roger Dodger writes ad copy in Manhattan, where his words expose consumers to the kind of emptiness that can only be filled by a new pair of cargo pants.

But Roger is also a downer in his spare time, at least with the ladies. In an early scene, we see him meeting women in a bar and subjecting them to his harsh snap-judgments about their lives. As when he accuses a young office worker of considering sleeping with her boss, his overgeneralizations carry just enough truth to sting. What his victims don't know is that Roger's own boss, Joyce (Isabella Rossellini), has just brought their affair to an end.

Throughout Roger Dodger we see women holding Roger in low esteem, yet he still claims to be a lady's man. Whether Roger truly is a modern urban Casanova, or even believes it himself, is a central question of Roger Dodger, an engrossing combination of dark character study and horny pub crawl.

Being shut out by Joyce at both the office and her bedroom, Roger's clearly in a vulnerable state. He's certainly not prepared to have his nephew Nick (Jesse Eisenberg) show up. Uncle Roger has little interest in playing babysitter to a 16-year-old from Ohio in town for college interviews.

But when lonely Nick turns to Roger for advice in attracting women, the older man warms to the idea of having an eager pupil and tag-along audience. Nick is a true innocent, a virgin who shuns tobacco, alcohol and caffeine, but his uncle resolves to cure him of his virtues in a single evening. "Sex is everywhere," and it's a man's job to get in touch with it, says Roger, sounding vaguely like Obi-Wan instructing Luke Skywalker in The Force. Roger teaches Nick how to disguise his street-corner ogling and avoid the truth whenever possible.

Roger can be an oppressive presence, but Nick's wide-eyed entry into his uncle's world gives the film its electricity, thanks in no small part to Eisenberg's unadorned, fresh-faced acting. Nick gets his first major test at a bar, where the two chat up a pair of pretty party girls comfortably played by, of all people, Jennifer Beals and Elizabeth Berkley. Dear Penthouse: I'm an Ohio high schooler, and during a trip to New York I spent a night on the town with Flashdance and Showgirl ...

The film makes a subtle joke of how women find Nick's shyness much more appealing than his uncle's hyper-verbal cynicism. But in espousing the pursuit of sex for its own sake, Roger isn't just playing the libertine. We the viewers realize that he's trying to smother his own sentimental feelings that allow Joyce's rejection to sting. In his most mature performance to date, Campbell Scott conveys Roger's conflicted personality. There's a sourness, an absence of pleasure, in his pickup lines and articulate speeches, and beneath his cocky confidence we detect desperation and self-loathing.

Roger Dodger faintly resembles other recent inquiries into masculine attitudes about sex, like HBO's "The Mind of the Married Man" and the early films of Neil LaBute. Yet Roger outstrips them both by presenting credible characters who exist in the real world. And while the Roger role provides an expose of sexism, Nick gives the film moments of passionate possibility that are genuinely sexy.

The film earned this year's Best Feature Award at Robert DeNiro's Tribeca Film Festival, and where you might expect a novice filmmaker to get only as far as first base, with Roger Dodger Dylan Kidd goes all the way.