THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan


Roger Swanson can't shut up. Not for a second. The character, played brilliantly by Campbell Scott in the movie Roger Dodger, has an opening scene monologue that goes on for about seven minutes. In it, he goes into great detail about how someday men will be obsolete because women will be able to reproduce on their own. He claims that the male species is hanging on by a thread; only our ability to lift heavy furniture has kept us from thus far meeting a cruel Darwinian fate.

If Roger sounds like an obnoxious bore, that's because he is. This is one of the reasons why his boss Joyce (Isabella Rossellini) has abruptly called off the affair they have been secretly carrying on. Roger has a hard time accepting that; he even goes so far as to plead with her not to dump him (and pleading does not come easily to a guy like this). The rejection makes him feel humiliated and angry. It is not the best time for his teenaged nephew Nick (Jesse Eisenberg) to show up unannounced, but this is exactly what happens. Roger has not spoken to the kid's mother in a long time, so this really comes as a surprise. Nick says he's been wanting to lose his virginity for a while; his mother told him Roger was something of a "ladies man" so he figured he could turn to his uncle for help. To both their amazements, Roger agrees to help.

Campbell Scott offers advice to Jesse Eisenberg in Roger Dodger
Once this set-up is complete, the rest of Roger Dodger consists of three segments. In the first (filmed kamikaze style on the streets of New York), Roger teaches (actually, he bullshits) Nick about the way men need to be constantly aware of sexual vibrations women send out. He teaches the kid to drop pencils in order to look up skirts; he explains how a window's reflection can be used to get an inconspicuous view of cleavage. Nick is nothing short of flabbergasted by what he perceives as his uncle's brilliant knowledge.

Armed with these lessons, Roger sneaks Nick into a bar and encourages him to pick up women. In a remarkable scene that runs nearly 35 minutes, Nick charms a single woman named Andrea (Elizabeth Berkley) and her best friend Sophie (Jennifer Beals). They are curious about why this teenager is in a bar and agree to sit down for a few drinks. Roger encourages the kid to make conversation, be interesting, be provocative. Nick basically just acts like himself - a charming, insecure kid. Roger keeps prodding, essentially playing bad cop to the kid's good cop (although he not-so-secretly hopes that Nick's charm will allow him to pick up one of the women as well). It's total manipulation on Roger's part, leading to a bittersweet moment for Nick.

The third part involves desperation. Nick is desperate to lose his virginity before the night is over, and Roger is desperate to prove himself by making it happen. He drags his poor nephew first to a prostitute, then to Joyce's house for a party, where he encourages him to hit on a severely drunken coworker. Of course, Roger shouldn't even be at Joyce's house. They broke up, plus he wasn't invited. At this point, Roger has been so unable to face his own shortcomings that he's on self-destruct auto-pilot. He thinks he has something to prove to everyone. When it can't be done, he is left to examine his shallowness, manipulation, and arrogance. This guy who reveres himself makes sure that he does a spectacular crash-and-burn right where everyone can see him. Someone like this would not have it any other way.

Roger Dodger is a comedy, albeit a rather dark one. It is often hilariously funny, yet at times I was both laughing and cringing simultaneously. This is exactly the feeling writer/director Dylan Kidd is trying to elicit. What sounds on the surface like another generic sex comedy is actually a bitingly funny character study. Roger Swanson is one of the most fascinating characters to grace a movie screen in years. He himself is one-dimensional, yet his motivations are anything but. If you've ever known someone whose every move was transparently artificial, you know the kind of person this is.

Campbell Scott is nothing short of brilliant playing this narcissistic louse. He delivers the motormouth dialogue with stinging wit, yet also makes Roger's eventual softening (mild as it is) believable. What's really amazing is the way Scott humanizes this character. Roger is not exactly sympathetic, but the actor makes us care about him even if we don't necessarily like him. I don't know how you do something like that. It must take a great amount of acting skill. Regardless, the film would be a pretty unpleasant experience if we detested Roger; the fact that he's so compulsively watchable is due to Scott's amazing work.

Roger Dodger is not a movie that's heavy on plot. It's what some might refer to as "talky." The final scene - which tries to offer up some indication of the ways in which Roger and Nick have changed - is funny, if not necessarily profound. Still, I liked this movie and I was fascinated by the central character. There are a lot of people like Roger out there. You know a few and so do I. How interesting that a movie can come along and expose them so accurately for all the world to see.

( out of four)

Roger Dodger is rated R for violence, sexuality, language and drug content. The running time is 1 hour and 45 minutes.

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