Dodging the Statue

'Roger Dodger' is such a precise film, it will most likely be ignored by the Academy.

I think the Academy should eliminate the "Best Picture" Oscar and instead substitute the following categories: Best Picture Featuring Stuff That Blows Up, Best Picture Featuring Weepy Growthfulness For The Middlebrow Masses, and Precision Filmmaking.

The latter category would concern only those films that were made within a reasonable budget, without recourse to a lot of fake guns and breasts, and with only the barest minimum of Kung Fu moves. Mostly, though, they would be films that lacked unnecessary details, tricks and manipulative techniques, films that lacked any fat or flab.

This year, so far, the award would almost certainly go to Punch Drunk Love, which is one of the most precise films I've ever seen (which is shocking, since it was made by Paul Thomas Anderson, whose last film, Magnolia, was clever, but extremely flabby).

However, first runner up might well be Roger Dodger, the first feature from well-connected writer/director Dylan Kidd.

The vast majority of Roger Dodger occurs on a single evening in the bars and parties habituated by the lower end of New York's upper class. The titular Roger is a calculating misanthrope who divides his hatred into two realms: the special hatred he holds for others, and the magical hatred he reserves for himself.

Both are in high gear this evening as he has just been dumped by his secret girlfriend, Joyce, who is also his boss. To make matters worse, the day after dumping him she invited everyone in her company to a party at her house. Well, everyone except Roger, that is. It seems that Joyce, like Roger, is not a very nice person.

Since this isn't a Stuff That Blows Up picture, Roger's only weapon against his enemies is dialogue. For this to be interesting, the dialogue would have to be not only good, but excellent, cutting, sharp, funny, mean, and, mostly, precise.

Well, in a bizarre coincidence, that's exactly the kind of dialogue Dylan Kidd has written for this movie. Roger moves from bar to bar skewering random women with his precise barbs, dissecting their lives and doing everything he can to make them feel horrible about themselves. It's clear that if he were to put these skills to use picking up, he'd wake up every morning covered in, umm, love.

Instead, his distaste for everything with human DNA, honed through his years as an advertising copywriter, and sharpened by his recently being dumped, makes him unpleasant, evil and tremendously fun to listen to.

The great dialogue, though, wouldn't be nearly as effective if it weren't for Campbell Scott's performance as Roger. Since most of this movie is shot in close-up, and its almost all talk and no action, the acting has to carry a lot more weight than in most films. Scott rises to the occasion by eschewing simple naturalism, instead crafting a bizarre character whose every facial expression seems to have been thought out years in advance.

Of course, if it were just Campbell Scott doing his Picasso-of-Mugging act, the film would lack a story. So, on this day when Roger is feeling bile for all, his 16-year-old nephew just happens to show up in the big city.

Nick, the nephew, seems to have just barely escaped from a teen film, as the purpose of his trip from Ohio to New York is de-virginize himself. Without the gang from American Pie to help him through this ordeal, he falls into the hands of the insidious Roger, who takes on the role of booty-artist impresario, partly to actually help Nick, but mostly because it gives him ample opportunity to be mean to virtually everyone he encounters.

Traveling from night spot to night spot in their quest to use up all the best dialogue of the year, Nick and Roger manage to pull in Sopie and Andrea, two beautiful women who are charmed by Nick's innocence and Roger's acumen.

Andrea is played by Elizabeth Berkley, whose cuteness and lack of acting talent would have made her a superstar if director Paul Verhoeven hadn't played a cruel trick on her by casting her as the lead in Showgirls. Now doing her obligatory Hollywood penance by apearing in a small, independent film (because that makes her an Artist), Berkley holds up nicely, mostly because the part involves looking pretty, something she's had some practice at.

Her partner, Sophie, is played by Jennifer Beals, a veteran of the kind of career Berkley has had and will be having. Beals also started in a big production (Flashdance) and then dropped off the face of the earth, but in the meantime she's become a subtle performer, and her brief appearance in Roger Dodger goes a long way towards humanizing the emotional horrors of this film.

Still, it's Scott's picture, and he completely rules it. He somehow manages to find five hundred shades of disgust and hatred, and, spewing Kidd's excellent dialogue, turns them into weapons of acting that could take out the complete NATO defense system, if the NATO defense system were, in fact, vulnerable to precision performances by serious actors.

At 104 minutes, Roger Dodger is just the right length, and its pacing and movement keeps it from ever lagging. It's not perfect, and it probably won't be remembered at the Golden Globes, but it is a promising start for director/writer Kidd, who may have just joined that exclusive club of directors like Atom Egoyan, Tom DiCillo and Todd Haynes whose goal (though they don't always achieve it) is not force, but precision.

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