WHEN WE meet Roger (Campbell Scott), he's holding forth like a riverboat gambler at a table of men and women. But the game isn't poker.
Roger's dealing intellectually polished, negative assertions about women. And he's got everyone on edge. It's the kind of deluded, sexist nonsense you'd expect from, well, an idiot. But it's a staggering verbal performance, seemingly brimming with insight.
In "Roger Dodger," Dylan Kidd's provocative satire, we can't help but watch this New York City player with fascination. Sooner or later, we know, someone's going to call him. And he's going to have to show his cards.
An advertising copywriter in Manhattan who (as he explains) makes people feel bad about themselves so they can be sold mediocre jeans and other consumer items, he's about to take an early stumble. His boss, Joyce (Isabella Rossellini), a woman with her own sterling confidence, has just told him their secret office affair is over. The Casanova Executive -- dumped!
To make matters worse, Roger's 16-year-old nephew (Jesse Eisenberg) shows up in his office, asking for a little help in the ladies' department. Nick's a virgin with a mission: to stop being one. According to Nick's mother (Roger's sister), Roger's just the man to lead him into manhood. Roger accepts this invitation, promising Nick he'll be able to "close the deal" that very night. And a master-disciple relationship begins.
Or some heavily ironic version thereof. Who's the master here? "Roger Dodger" is a corkscrew of a joke. It never stops twisting with irony, as it burrows into Roger's towering male ego. His wisdom undone and refuted at every turn, he has a long night ahead of him. But for us, it's going to be fun.
Roger spots his targets: two female friends, Sophie (Jennifer Beals) and Andrea (Elizabeth Berkley) in a singles bar. He summons them to his table and starts a conversation, in which he makes clear Nick's agenda, as well as a certain wager they have going.
Slimy stuff, yet Roger does have something. He keeps them appalled and intrigued. And besides, this Nick is kind of cute -- way too sweet for this kind of business. There's a lot more ahead, both at this meeting of the sexes and a later party hosted by Joyce -- a function to which Roger has not been invited. And ever so subtly, the balance of wisdom between uncle and nephew switches.
Kidd, a first-time writer and director, has created a sophisticated but intriguingly toxic comedy of manners. His adroitness with dialogue and story building lures us into a drama with disturbing implications. As Nick, Eisenberg makes a perfect, pimply greenhorn, whose power grows with each scene. With relatively little time on screen, Rossellini, Beals and Berkley are also warmly appealing and credible -- at odds, of course, with Roger's misguided worldview. But the lion's share of acting credit must go to Scott, who has already demonstrated his abilities in such films as "Longtime Companion," "The Sheltering Sky," "Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle" and Alan Rudolph's upcoming "The Secret Lives of Dentists." Without him, Roger would be a dark, twisted character -- someone barely worth our time. But Scott infuses him with so much likable urgency, it's impossible to dismiss him easily. This player's got a soul. And that's richly troubling.
ROGER DODGER (R, 105 minutes) -- Contains sexual situations, drunkenness and obscenity. At Landmark Theatres Bethesda Row and Cineplex Odeon Dupont Circle.