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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

Oscar snubs its nose at you, Matt Damon (et. al)

"What do you mean I didn't get an Oscar nomination? I gained 40 POUNDS!"

Every year begins with the same blasted vow: I won’t wear my heart on my sleeve. I won’t get sucked in. I’ll be strong and aloof. In short, I swear I won’t let myself get emotionally involved in the Oscar race.

PFFFFFFT. Go on. Now pull the other one.

Yeah, so that never happens. Never comes close to happening. It’s all gibberish. Maybe my real resolution should be that one of these days I might flush all these delusions of keeping my heart out of the Oscar race down le porcelain bowl … but it won’t be this year! Especially not this year, when the Best Picture race got expanded to 10 (what a nice, big, fat round number, no?), a sure signal that the Academy had opened its ranks to deserving films that, before, never would have had a chance.

While that may be true (say what you want about “Avatar,” but rare is the blockbuster that crashes the Best Picture ball), in true Academy fashion these snobbish cats have doled out some fairly glaring and some just-plain-wrong snubs. They are as follows:

Best Picture / “Star Trek,” “Two Lovers” — Mental gymnastics are required to reason out why “Avatar,” with its amazing visuals and so-so storyline, merited an Oscar nod while “Star Trek” did not. J.J. Abrams’ energetic, heartfelt summer blockbuster is nothing short of a total reinvention. Thrilling action, special effects, wit, verve, inside jokes, great acting — “Star Trek” has them all in spades. James Gray’s “Two Lovers takes what could have been a Lifetime TV movie — an aimless, emotionally damaged man (Joaquin Phoenix) torn between two women — and turns it into a nuanced character study with almost no melodrama, and a very fine motion picture deserving of some statues.

Best Actor / Damon, Maguire, Phoenix — Oh, the triple negligence the Academy has perpetrated in this, its 82nd awards season. First is their thoughtless brush-aside of Matt Damon, who comically and painfully captured the disordered mind of whistleblower Mark Whitacre in Stephen Soderbergh’s deceptively jaunty “The Informant!” (His acting there was better than “Invictus.”) Second was the blatant disregard of Tobey Maguire’s blistering portrayal of a POW so ruined by war that he cannot reclaim his family and life in “Brothers.” Last but for certainly not least is the absence of Joaquin Phoenix’s name, which is a travesty considering his troubled Leonard Kraditor in “Two Lovers” may be the most haunting, commendable piece of acting he’s ever done.

Best Actress / Abbie Cornish — In the Focus Features 2006 film “Candy,” Abbie Cornish gave us a glimpse of her blossoming talent, but in “Bright Star,”* about Romantic poet John Keat’s short-lived, passionate romance with Fanny Brawne, she emerges fully formed. She gives beaming vitality, spirit and life to one of poetry’s greatest-known muses, and for that she deserves much, much acclaim. Why, Academy, do you insist on withholding the love?

Best Supporting Actress / Laurent, Rossellini — Considering the hot, exhilarating mess of a spectacle that is “Inglourious Basterds”, perhaps it’s inevitable that someone would get lost in the mix. That someone, however, should not be Parisian actress Mélanie Laurent, for her Shosanna is the emotional center of the film; her outstanding one-on-one with Waltz in the cafe should have cemented that award. Isabella Rossellini, who plays Leonard’s worried mother in “Two Lovers,” is no less subtle or devastating. Her quiet performance is a thing of beauty, and it’s the crowning achievement of a career that hasn’t had that many. 

Best Original Screenplay / “The Brothers Bloom” — Rian Johnson is the man who gave us “Brick,” that outrageously stylish mix of gumshoe talk and teen hormones. And now this, a wildly twisty dramedy about two conmen brothers — one wants out; the other turns long cons into art — and the rich, innocent mark they’re about to bilk out of millions. Is it arty, maybe a bit too arch and complex? Maybe. Does it possess the kind of fiendish cleverness and originality Hollywood sorely lacks? Abso-damn-lutely.

Best Original Song / “Stu’s Song” — I’m not about to argue that “Stu’s Song,” hilariously performed by Ed Helms in “The Hangover,” is overflowing with the emotional depth of, say, “The Weary Kind” or has the glitter-and-sequins of “Take It All.” But it’s still an tremendously funny tune that manages to be clever and neatly sum up what “The Hangover” is all about. And that last line is PRICELESS.

*Review forthcoming

Top 10 actors/actresses of 2009

How many blog comments, I wonder, have inspired whole posts?

I don’t have an answer to that question, but the ever-astute Encore Entertainment posed a difficult but interesting question: Who gave the best performances, the ones that would top my list of favorites for the year?

Now that’s a thinker … but one that only lasted about six minutes. Then in marched the answers, and I present them to you thusly:

The ladies

Mo'Nique's blistering turn in "Precious" deserves to be called the best of the year.

  1. Mo’Nique, “Precious”
  2. Abbie Cornish, “Bright Star”
  3. Gabourey Sidibe, “Precious”
  4. Melanie Laurent, “Inglourious Basterds” 
  5. Vera Farmiga, “Up in the Air”
  6. Melanie Lynskey, “The Informant!” 
  7. Isabella Rossellini, “Two Lovers”
  8. Vinessa Shaw, “Two Lovers”
  9. Charlyne Yi, “Paper Heart”
  10. Meryl Streep, “Julie & Julia”

The fellows

Christoph Waltz creates the perfect villain in "Inglourious Basterds."

  1. Christoph Waltz, “Inglourious Basterds”
  2. Adam Sandler, “Funny People”
  3. George Clooney, “Up in the Air”
  4. Matt Damon, “The Informant!”
  5. Tobey Maguire, “Brothers”
  6. Joaquin Phoenix, “Two Lovers”
  7. Paul Schneider, “Bright Star”
  8. Joseph Gordon-Levitt, “(500) Days of Summer”
  9. Mark Ruffalo, “The Brothers Bloom”
  10. Zachary Quinto, “Star Trek”

Readers, which actors and actresses delivered the year’s best performances? Let’s hear your picks.

Review: “Two Lovers” (2009)

Two_LoversLeonard Kraditor (Joaquin Phoenix) is a stumbler. He stumbles into two relationships — with the stunning, troubled Michelle (Gwyneth Paltrow) and Sandra (Vinessa Shaw), a kind-hearted family friend — clumsily and without purpose. He stumbles into jobs, hobbies, social interactions. Things simply seem, in Leonard’s addled mind, to happen to him, never the other way around. This mix of confusion and listlessness makes him a perfect disaster of a lover but one fascinating and inscrutable antihero.

In another movie starring another actor, a character like this would be an annoying mess — whiny and sad and grating, able to see opportunities for change but unable to seize them. But director James Gray has a flair for understatement. Phoenix, one of those actors who seems perfect for every part, has a gift for softening our hearts toward the least desirable characters, ones so dumb or damaged or purposeless they’re stuck in a hamster wheel of bad choices. This director/actor pairing is something of a revelation, and one that makes the beautifully lensed “Two Lovers” more of a compelling character study than a soppy melodrama about a love triangle.

The film’s title gives away the major crisis: “Two Lovers” revolves around Leonard’s romantic entanglement with Michelle and Vinessa. Sandra, who is sweet and undemanding, likes Leonard perhaps more than any woman should like a 30-something man medicated for depression who moved in the Brooklyn apartment of his parents (Isabella Rossellini, Moni Moshonov) after failed suicide attempts. Why this man, so obviously unstable? Sandra’s attraction to Leonard hints that she may have an affinity for strays. But she’s far more dependable than Michelle, the willowy blonde Leonard meets outside his parents’ apartment. Michelle plays see-saw with Leonard’s heart, still fragile from a broken engagement, by inviting him to meet her friends, then weeping to him at 4 a.m. about her married boyfriend (Elias Koteas) and her crushing indecision. (Note: There’s a crucial difference between women who call at 4 p.m. and ones who call at 4 a.m.) While Michelle fascinates and excites Leonard, Sandra calms his anxieties. She accepts his distractedness without question. Both women fill different needs, and so he cannot envision losing either.

The fact that neither woman feels like the de-facto “right choice” illustrates the subtle sophistication of the beautifully lensed “Two Lovers,” based on Luchino Visconti’s “Le Notti Bianche.” This is not the kind of film where answers are easy, motivations are transparent and characters are staid. In fact, the people in “Two Lovers” are impossible to stereotype. Though Leonard’s mother Ruth (Rossellini turns in a nuanced performance) worries about her son, she doesn’t hover or smother. Nor does she force him to see Sandra as a cure-all, the good girl who will morph him from a troubled boy into a mature, respectable man. All Ruth knows is that Leonard has problems that run much deeper than post-relationship grief. Her patience with him, her willingness to let him find his own way makes her one of the film’s most moving characters. 

Shaw, too, does a fine job creating a love interest who is not a boring cardboard cutout, the Sandra O. to Paltrow’s Rizzo. (To be fair, Paltrow does avoid turning Michelle into a cliche, instead letting us see humanity in her insecurity — because women that attractive always seem to be insecure.) Sandra goes into her relationship with Leonard with eyes wide open: She knows he has depths she can’t touch and she loves him still. Yet Shaw makes Sandra’s timidity and no-questions-asked acceptance of Leonard tell us she’s not as simple as she seems. She has demons she won’t let us see.

And that Joaquin Phoenix. An egocentric kook, maybe, but me oh my can that actor make somber, beaten-down and complex look new and shiny every time he plays them. He has a resume littered with broken characters, but Leonard may be his best yet — vulnerable and maddening and touching in one fell swoop. How sad, then, that Phoenix has said “Two Lovers” was his last movie. If that’s the case, it’s fitting he’s gone out with a whimper, not a bang. Sometimes it’s the whimpers that hit hardest.

Grade: A-