Roger Dodger, the debut film of writer/director Dylan Kidd, is an audacious, very funny modern sex comedy that jumps back and forth between sharp social satire and super-dark misanthropy. Despite a dragging ending that veers way off into darkness, it's a highly watchable, very memorable film.
Kidd's film goes in the "dating theory" subgenre along with Annie Hall, Swingers, Chasing Amy, and The Tao of Steve- the sort of romantic comedy that manages to appeal to men by applying macho pseudo-analysis to usual dating tropes, cinematic and otherwise. Roger Dodger takes this formula further, straight past humor into dark social commentary- and for the majority of the film, it works.
In a career-best performance, Campbell Scott stars as Roger, a 30-something Manhattan ad exec with a well-known proclivity for womanizing- and another, separate proclivity for approaching women in bars and ennumerating their faults right to their faces- "if I had a week to steady your father, and all the different ways he ignored you," he says to one young lady, "I could come up with a schtick that you'd be helpless to resist."
Roger's life is complicated when he's visited by his teenage nephew Nick (Jesse Eisenberg), who arrives in New York for a college visit with the intention of learning from the master, his uncle, the finer points of seducing the ladies. This leads to a dynamite sequence in which the older man teaches the younger man the finer points of how to steal glances at women on the streets, especially when they're wearing skirts on windy days.
The centerpiece of the film is a nearly 30-minute sustained sequence in which Roger and Nick go on a "double date" with two women, played (in a marvelous it of casting) by Jennifer "Flashdance" Beals and Elizabeth "Showgirls" Berkeley. Beals has never looked better in her life than in this film, while Berkeley takes another step towards redeeming herself after that near-career-killing mistake. The sequence is a microcosm of the film itself- it begins as funny and witty, before vearing into uncomfortably dark territory before long.
And that's where the film ends up, going way over the top in its third act into unbelievable, difficult-to-watch misenthropy. It's redeemed, however, by a funny epilogue, reportedly added after the fact due to studio-ordered reshoots. This time, the studio was right.
Some will call Roger Dodger a misogynistic film, due to the often woman-bashing generalizations shared by Roger in his many monologues. But upon further examination, the joke is on him- it's himself he (and the film) hate, not the women. Really, Roger Dodger could be called a tragic character study disguised as a comedy. But it's a brilliant disguise- and a near-brilliant film.