As Nasty As He Wants to Be

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Ohe problem with making a bleak indie movie about sex and the single guy in New York is that most of the audience will be single guys in the city, people who know too many of the breed, or both. And they’ve all perfected the art of turning urban dating’s bleakness into entertaining party banter. If there’s no levity to a film of this type, it runs the risk of becoming that slightly drunk and lonely co-worker at an office function, the one who insists on making too much eye contact and taking you into their confidence. It’s why romantic comedies do better at the box office than Todd Solondz films — they’re the flirty, flitty life and soul of the party.
     Roger Dodger, the first film by writer-director Dylan Kidd (a single guy in the city, I’m guessing), refuses to be distilled into entertaining banter. It makes Solondz look like he’s on Prozac. The film is set in a New York so seedy and empty that it looks like it was filmed on the set of Eyes Wide Shut.
     Campbell Scott (Singles, The Spanish Prisoner) is Roger, a cynical ad copywriter (is there any other kind?) who at first glance appears to apply his professional technique to his sexual conquests: Make the potential consumer feel sufficiently bad about herself, then offer a product that will make all the woes fade away like grass stains on white laundry. But although Roger has the demeaning, make-her-question-everything part down pat, he never quite gets around to offering an appealing product.
     We meet Roger in a New York bar, where he’s surrounded by friends. He is holding forth on the location of the clitoris and its role in the diminishing importance of the male species. His punchline: Men shouldn’t teach women to read maps, because once chicks have mastered that skill, all that’s left for the dudes is heavy lifting. Not a particularly original sentiment, but at least it captures that brand of self-satisfied, evo-psych babble that passes for intelligent discourse.
     Soon thereafter, Roger’s sixteen-year-old nephew, Nick, turns up. (He’s played by Jesse Eisenberg, older brother of the little Pepsi girl; you won’t miss the resemblance.) Nick is a curly-haired, earnest virgin from Ohio who digs inner beauty and wears a bracelet engraved with instructions on how to cryogenically freeze his body in case he dies prematurely. He’s in town ostensibly to check out colleges, but he really wants Roger to teach him how to talk to girls. Roger can’t refuse Nick’s flattering request to be mentored, and he goes at the task with gusto. Except he assumes that “talk to girls” means “get laid,” so Roger focuses on closing the deal. Remember, this is not a comedy.
     Roger then takes off on a fast-paced tour of the city as he sees it — Nick and the audience are just along for the ride. Which is fine, unless you’re not entirely sure you want to be along for the ride, in which case it can be nauseating (literally: the hand-held cinematography is Blair Witch Project-esque at times). The frantic pace lends the film a sense of foreboding; it’s about as light and airy as American Psycho.
     It’s not hard to guess where it goes from here: Roger tries to corrupt Nick; Nick alternately tries to resist and imitate Roger. Roger demonstrates his rapport with the ladies, but awkward teen charm wins the day (as well as a kiss with uptown girl Sophie, played Jennifer Beals). You’d think this might provide some necessary comedy, but instead it illustrates that what Nick has to offer — his goodness and innocence — is as limited a commodity as his virginity. He’s a novelty item to Sophie and her friend Andrea (Showgirls‘ Elizabeth Berkley, sort of redeeming herself at last). “Have you met my nephew? His name is Jesus,” quips Roger in one of the film’s few funny lines.
     “Sex is everywhere,” Roger tells Nick, exasperated that his nephew is unable to grasp the concept or consummate the deed (Nick refuses to do it with a girl at a party who’s passed-out drunk, despite Roger’s encouragement). Roger claims to be a lightning rod for all the sexuality in the air, but not once does he appear interested: his sex drive has had all the sex whittled out of it and now it’s just drive. Roger Dodger is the least sexy movie about sex I’ve ever seen, if you don’t count porn.
     Little films like this are kind of like the guys they portray — you can forgive the cockiness and arrogance as long as they’re charming. Roger tries for uplift in a scene set in Nick’s natural habitat: the losers’ table in a high school cafeteria. “In ten years, you won’t even remember what this place looks like,” Roger tells Nick and his pimply cronies. It’s meant as a message of hope from the future, but it sounds more like a death knell to all that is good and sweet about Nick. Curly-haired, earnest virgins from Ohio aren’t quite as cute when they’re thirty-two. And this little film — which shows a man at his unrepenting worst in his late thirties — makes the adage “you can’t go back again” utterly terrifying.

© 2002 Emma Taylor and Nerve.com.