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Review: “Roger Dodger” (2002)

People who think they have any part of life — money, sex, parenthood — figured out are twice as clueless as the rest of us. Which means that Roger Swanson (Campbell Scott) is in for a ruder awakening than the average smug bastard because he’s so self-assured that he takes on a pupil: his nerdy teen nephew Nick (Jesse Eisenberg) as a pupil. Roger will spread his delusion to the next generation. This is the sort of familiar movie predicament that has two possible outcomes: Student absorbs the lesson and surpasses the teacher, or teacher learns something unexpected from the student.

The breezy pace and bitterly funny, vivid dialogue, though, prevent Dylan Kidd’s “Roger Dodger” from seeming that stale and predictable. The film also has Scott, an actor not usually given particularly substantial roles. Given the strength of his brutally frank, acerbic performance here, it’s hard to explain why he’s not better known — or, at the very least, a shoe-in to play more characters like Roger Swanson. Scott is every millimeter the caustic cynic, a Manhattan copywriter with a somewhat sadistic approach to his career. “You can’t sell a product without first making people feel bad,” he contends, insisting “it’s a substitution game.” This is how he approaches his love life, too. But Roger’s bravado backfires when his lover Joyce (Isabella Rossellini) — who’s also his boss — dumps him. Roger can’t quite accept that his tactics could be flawed, can’t quite accept that he’s hoodwinked himself, so he crashes a work function and confronts Joyce. Her rebuff is as succinct as it is chilly. When Roger’s 16-year-old nephew shows up at his office unannounced, Roger sees a prime opportunity to channel (misdirect, really) his frustration and exact an odd sort of revenge. Nick, a virgin of the never-been-kissed ilk, proves to be the perfect blank canvas: thoroughly naïve and eager. He’s perfectly happy to let Roger take him on a tour of Manhattan’s bars, which, after 3 a.m., all start to look the same.

Bar-hopping and one short-lived jaunt to a strip club ultimately amount to the sum total of “action” in “Roger Dodger.” But the lack of action is no problem because action merely would detract from Kidd’s script, which crackles with stinging one-liners and prickly, fast-paced banter. (The script on its own would make for quite a lively read.) “Roger Dodger” is one of those uncommon films where the flow of words — because Roger never stops talking, nor do we want him to — is enough to keep the atmosphere lively and the momentum speedy. Pay close attention to Scott’s terrific opening monologue, a comic and telling introduction to a man whose speeches are so entertaining his listeners don’t see the catastrophe he’s leading them to. Roger is the modern (and male) equivalent of a siren, using his words to enchant and then destroy. Bitter humor is a requirement for the part, but Scott brings something more to it. He locates a core of rage and pain that Roger’s protecting, which makes him seem less villainous even though he’s clearly manipulating (not to mention misleading) the well-intentioned Nick. (Interesting tidbit: Eisenberg essentially reprised this role for 2009’s “Solitary Man.”) Eisenberg has a gift for seeming as raw and impressionable as a high schooler — despite the fact that he was nearly 20 during filming.

For a male-centric film, “Roger Dodger” also has a trio of strong female performances, with two of them coming out of nowhere (“Flashdance” and “Showgirls” ring any bells?). Rossellini, as a strong-willed, matter-of-fact careerwoman, is the stressor that pushes Roger over the edge, and she more than matches Scott’s cynicism. She cannot be snared in his webs of words. Jennifer Beals and Elizabeth Berkley register as more than disposable playthings as Sophie and Andrea, who tag along on Roger and Nick’s escapades because they find Nick’s sincerity likable. In a way, he takes them back to the days of sweetly nervous first kisses, not sleazy pickup lines and grabby hands in ill-lit bars. They want to preserve that innocence and sense — there’s that female intuition Roger can’t pin down — Roger’s out to destroy it. The magic of “Roger Dodger,” though, is that even Roger can’t be pegged that easily.

Grade: A

Review: “Showgirls” (1995)

I don’t know about you, but for me the moment Elizabeth Berkley licked the stripper pole in “Showgirls” was the moment the movie became a contender in the Worst Movie Ever Made race.

And that’s just what the first act had to offer.

Thus, it seems entirely appropriate that, when speaking of the movie that Roger Ebert called scriptwriter Joe Eszerthas’ “masturbatory fantasies,”  it’s wisest not to try to find positives in the vast, skeezy wasteland that is “Showgirls.” Because any movie where the actors swear, straight-faced, that what looks to be a full-body seizure reveals “natural” dancing ability, or where two actresses bond over a shared love of Doggy Chow, isn’t a movie directed by a man with a lot of shame. Or self-awareness. Or, ahem, talent.

Before launching into my personal justifications (a catalogue of crap, to put it less delicately) for why “Showgirls” merits very serious consideration for the Worst Movie Ever Made award, though, some background information may be in order. In “Showgirls” Eszerterhas takes us into the mind-numbingly stupid — and icky — world of Nomi Malone (Elizabeth Berkley), a mysterious girl from “different places” who comes to Las Vegas to pursue her dream of being a showgirl. Alas, this is not to be at first, and she winds up stripping in the Cheetah Club, the kind of club where simply touching the doorknob puts one at risk for contracting an incurable STD. She meets Nice People — James (Glen Plummer), who really likes Nomi but can’t seem to quit slaying those hoodrats, and Molly (Gina Ravera), a seamstress at the Stardust Hotel which hosts Goddess, a classier semi-nude show — and Villainous Types, like Cristal Conners (Gina Gershon), the star of Goddess, and hyper-sleazy Goddess show bigwigs Zack (Kyle MacLachlan) and Tony Moss (Alan Rachins).

Catfights and vigorous random sexual encounters abound as Malone tries to claw her way to the top. Poor, poor Nomi. It’s hard out there for a showgirl.

Now that the stage has been set, let’s press on to a CV of crap:

  • Elizabeth Berkley — Her performance as wannabe Vegas showgirl Nomi Malone (she has a Mysterious Past, sadly unperky nipples and can go from straight to bisexual in 15 seconds flat) is so artless, wooden and fake that it pushes “Showgirls” from tolerably tacky garbage to garbage period.
  • Nomi’s dancing — As bad as Berkley’s acting is, her dancing is worse. It’s impossible to watch her jerk, twitch and writhe on stage and not recall the infamous Jessie Spano caffeine-pill freakout. The real tragedy in “Showgirls,” though, is that Nomi isn’t on uppers. Pity — those things worked wonders for Jessie!
  • The dialogue — Had the actors in “Showgirls” had any choice in the matter, they’d probably have elected to talk like, I don’t know, regular human beings. Instead, Eszerthas forces them to use lines like “You can’t touch me, but I can touch you. And I’d really like to touch you,” “you’re gonna be a big star. Your face is gonna be up on billboards” or “she looks better than a 10-inch dick and you know it.” Look at the actors’ faces when they drop drivel like this; even they can’t believe what they’re hearing.
  • That Swiss Cheese slice posing as a “plot” — Most movies require suspension of disbelief, but “Showgirls” demands a lobotomy, preferably one that’s self-administered with a screwdriver or a dull nail file (whatever’s handiest). Things happen here so randomly you wonder if Eszerthas interacts with real people or just blow-up dolls: Nomi nearly attacks Molly in the opening scenes, then Molly invites her to live in her trailer. What? Cristal and Nomi have a shared moment over their taste for dog food. Riiiight. Whenever two women appear on screen, they seem nanoseconds away from a vigorous makeout session. Of course they are!
  • The characters — Every character unfortunate enough to have lines in “Showgirls” comes across as phony, flat, atrociously written and utterly annoying, and Nomi is the worst. Every time she opens her mouth you silently pray for an anvil — manna from heaven! — to smash her flat. Or maybe that’s just what I spent 120 minutes doing.
  • And, naturally, the pole-licking bit. Because no other scene so perfectly encapsulates what “Showgirls” is all about: unadulterated and ill-lit sleaze. Oh, and because no other scene ever provoked such an immediate and violent desire to gargle with Clorox and rubbing alcohol.

Grade: F