He's Down on Luck, But He's No Tragic Hero

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Read also an interview with Dylan Kidd.

It's important for stories-not just movies, but stories in general-to have an engaging, likeable protagonist at their core. Not a good guy necessarily-in fact, the most heroic character can benefit from a little moral ambiguity-but someone charismatic, charming; not a person you'd quite want to bring home to mother, but someone you wouldn't mind spending an hour or so with at a middle of nowhere bar with nothing but the table and a pair of drinks between you.

You do not want to spend time at a bar with Roger Swanson.

Roger (Campbell Scott), is the protagonist in writer/director Dylan Kidd's debut feature, "Roger Dodger." The title comes from Roger's childhood nickname, because apparently, even then he was a slippery little bastard. Roger practically lives in bars, fancying himself a swinger and pop-psychologist, able to pick up any woman by telling her everything that is wrong with her life, presumably so that she will decide said life would be better with a little Roger in it.

This does not work. Roger's unctuous, oily "charm," conveyed with somewhat scary realism by Scott-I don't particularly want to spend time with him in a bar now, either-practically oozes off the screen, and members of the audience aren't the only ones aware of it. The women of the film are more than on to his game, as his lack of luck at getting lucky while showing his nephew Nick (Jesse Eisenberg) the ropes makes readily apparent. You almost feel sorry for the poor jerk.

Almost. The ickiness that is Roger makes it very difficult to pity him, because every mess he gets himself into is one of his own making. The bravery behind Kidd's approach to the story is that he knows this, and he doesn't do anything to wipe the slime away. There is no "tucking-in the blanket" scene straight out of Roger Ebert's "Little Book of Movie Clichés," nothing to make you reconsider and say, "Wow! That Roger is really a gentleman at heart." Nope. Roger opens the film an asshole and stays one. Period.

Herein lies the inherent difficulty of the film: you can't identify with Roger (at least, I hope you can't) and this leaves you with very little to hold on to. As Roger stoops lower and lower during his crazy night out with Nick, I found myself becoming more and more repelled. In real life, I would not want to spend two seconds with this guy - so why should I spend two hours watching a movie about him?

"Roger Dodger" is very much an indie film. It has minimal lighting and shaky, Blair Witch-y handheld camera work, which at times can be a bit off-putting. In certain scenes, inanimate objects seem to pass through character's bodies (in one scene in a dimly lit bar, a group of flickering candles appear in many shots to be in the middle of Nick's hair; I kept waiting for someone to douse him with a glass of water).

The performances are strong, however. Eisenberg, playing perhaps the only character in the film you'd want to give the time of day, holds his own amongst his adult co-stars. This is disturbing when you consider that he is the older brother of Hallie Kate Eisenberg, the Pepsi spokeskid, but perhaps it is unwise to judge people by their annoying little devil siblings.

The film's other strength lies in its clever, realistic dialogue. Here the jumpy camerawork does feel appropriate, as if the fourth wall were trying to keep up with the characters' verbal tennis match. Kidd has an ear for speech patterns, and Roger and Company sound like real people you might overhear at a cafe before quickly getting up and moving to another table. Or maybe staying to take in every word: Roger's psychobabble is no less repellent than his actions, but somehow, it's tough to stop listening.

All in all, "Roger Dodger" is an interesting, thought-provoking film, but not a very pleasant one. One of the great joys of a compelling protagonist is the potential to live vicariously through them for the course of their story. Just the thought of living vicariously through Roger is enough to make me want to take a very long shower.


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