Roger Dodger (2002) ** 1/2
Written and directed by Dylan Kidd. Photography, Joaquin Baca-Asay. Editing, Andy Kier. Production design, Stephen Beatrice. Music,Craig Wedren. Producers, Anne Chaisson, George VanBuskirk, Dylan Kidd. Cast: Campbell Scott, Jesse Eisenberg, Isabella Rossellini, Elizabeth Berkley , Jennifer Beals, Mina Badie, Ben Shenkman. An Artisan release. 105 minutes. Rated R (Mostly situations and language)
Please bear in mind that my rather low grade is minoritarian. The overwhelming majority of reviewers rate the film from A to B+. Many compare it with the very good "In the Company of Men" by Neil LaBute. It was a hit at the Tribeca Film Festival and has just been voted Best First Film by the New York Film Critics. I won't argue against the latter. The movie is original and daring. The performances by all its players, notably Campbell Scott's, are excellent. But its oral-aural plus visual exaggerations do irritate me.
It opens with under 40 Roger (Campbell Scott) presiding over a group of friends (?) in a café. Dominating all in volubility, chain-smoking and hard drinking, he holds forth with ambitious, authoritative analyses and declarations about sex. His "intellectual" range is wide, quotations, psycho-philosophical-medical terms rain down. To what extent his companions swallow all this is unclear. The sequence reminds me of "deep" bull-sessions held by certain students on college campuses. What's clear to me is that Roger's talk is mostly bull.
The verbal tone is set. So is Roger's personality. He suffers from erotomania, and, behind the bluster, severe insecurity. His life is a perverted assembly-line of seducing females strictly for sex, in ways crude enough to make Don Juan sound like a poet.
The visual tone is also set. Almost all the shots, Shots, scenes and sequences are dark and murky. They are obviously filmed with a handheld camera which jiggles, moves ceaselessly and gratuitously in all directions for no reason, exhausts the eyes, interposes out-of-focus blobs and irrelevantly obscure obstacles between the viewer and the actors.No use is made of a SteadyCam , that harness which stabilizes a camera as its operator follows a moving subject. (It became famous in the Sylvester Stallone "Rocky" boxing movies.)
The strategy here is mega-irritating, confusing and annoying. No doubt I the filmmakers deluded themselves, thought they were pioneering avant-garde techniques. The pretentious images come with awful sound. Whereas an unidirectional microphone could have been chosen, the recording of "wild" sound only accentuates ambient noises and obscures the dialogue to an insufferable degree. There are also too many high frequencies, too few low ones. This exhausting method might perhaps be slightly more productive in theaters with state-of-the-art equipment, but not all movie-houses have it. And while some film innovators (e.g. Godard or Coppola) also use ambient sound, they do it creatively, not at the expense of intelligibility.. After two vain attempts to pick up new faces in bars, Roger, with a stolen key, enters the apartment of Joyce (Isabella Rossellini, now 50,) his latest mistress. Joyce wants to sever their relationship and, as later revealed, is his boss at an advertising agency. "I won't fire you," says she, "but I don't wish to see you socially any longer." Later too, we conclude that his choice of an older woman is motivated by sexual considerations (unquotable.)
Now comes the visit of Nick (Jesse Eisenberg,) Roger's 16-year old nephew from Ohio, in New York City to prospect universities. Impressed by his uncle's womanizing, Nick, still a virgin and anxious, asks for advice on seduction. He gets it, in spades. Roger then proceeds with the carnal education of the boy. It includes the need for drinking, as "alcohol has been a social lubricant for thousands of years." Ho, hum.
All the while the camera keeps bobbing up, down and sideways, uses big lens-stops that throw too much foreground out of focus and make it an abstract obstacle, while Roger's logorrhea makes "My Dinner With Andre" positively feel Shakespearean.
Two beautiful girls in a bar become the testing components of Nick's schooling: Jennifer Beals (close to 40) and Elizabeth Barkley(30.) They are chic, sophisticated in sex and NewYorkerisms, rather over-painted and -lipsticked, their social and sexual status unclear. Those sequences end with the women liking the young man but departing with an insult for Roger.
He moves to Plan B for the deflowering of Nick, by crashing a party, then taking the boy in a bordello in what could be New York's catacombs. The night shots add more claustrophobia as well as Newton's rings (a technical term in photography) to the depressing sites and sights. We need Army nightgoggles by now. The missions fail. After Nick's return to Ohio, there is, at the school cafeteria, an unnecessary, tacked on reappearance of advice-dispensing Roger. Adieu Roger, and good riddance!
P.S. There will be a marked improvement for the audiences when the movie is exported and subtitled in various languages. This will help it further as the darkness of so many images will make the subtitles stand out clearly.