“Roger Dodger” is about a man who refuses to learn anything about himself because he thinks he already knows it. You could feel sad for him, if the movie weren’t so jarringly funny and if he weren’t so hilariously oblivious.
He is Roger Swanson (Campbell Scott), a Manhattan advertising copywriter who, he would have us believe, can talk a different woman into bed every night of the week, if he chooses. The film begins and ends with Roger doing what he does best — talking, endlessly, smartly, eloquently about the fairer sex.
His 16-year-old nephew, Nick (Jesse Eisenberg), in town to look at colleges, wants Uncle Roger to teach him the ways of the lothario, and the two embark on a night of on-the-job training in bars and clubs, all as Roger delivers such advice as, “Your first instinct will be to tell the truth. Fight it!”
Mixed with this are scenes from Roger’s ongoing, failing attempts to maintain a relationship with his boss, played by the radiant Isabella Rossellini. These are hints at the loser Roger really is; the question is whether he will realize it as clearly as the audience does.
Campbell Scott, whose last great performance was the lead in David Mamet’s “Spanish Prisoner” (1997), does bravura work here, in a movie whose dialogue is often as realistically stylish as the stuff Mamet writes. The movie doesn’t just rest on his character’s shoulders — it puts him under a microscope and lets us see every aspect of his personality. Scott is more than up to the task. One amazing scene follows him and Nick in one long take through a city street as he gives preliminary advice on girl-watching, speaking in tones that are so passionate they are nearly fierce. There is deep frustration underneath Roger’s cool exterior, and Scott plays it to the hilt.
Jesse Eisenberg is also quite good in his first major role (he’s the older brother of that cute little Pepsi-commercial girl). The women Roger and Nick hit on at a bar are played by Elizabeth “Showgirls” Berkly and Jennifer “Flashdance” Beals — but you’d never know it by the impressive, verbally nimble performances they give.
Dylan Kidd joins Burr Steers (“Igby Goes Down”) in the ranks of great first-time writer/directors of 2002. “Roger Dodger” does not break any new ground, but it treads over the old ground with gut-busting dark humor and mischievousness.
B+ (1 hr., 45 min.; )