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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

“The Town” captures spirit of Boston but overdoes action

Affleck (left) and Renner make for a formidable team of thieves in "The Town."

There’s a strange air of historical reverence and foreboding about Boston that’s singular. Don’t expect anyone to mistake it for New York, Chicago, Los Angeles; Boston exists in a class all its own. And it takes a mighty talent to tease out that energy and make it seem genial enough to draw us in, make us comfortable and ominous and tense enough to keep us breathless. Ben Affleck — the star of “Reindeer Games” and, Lord help us, “Gigli” — is precisely the man for the job. Who knew?

Looking back, the signs were there. In his acting career, Affleck has excelled at playing conflicted souls: Gavin in “Changing Lanes,” George Reeves in “Hollywoodland.” The parts that required him to show up and look dashing were largely forgettable. Turning a director’s camera on the streets of Boston, his hometown, then, seems like a logical step. He proved in “Gone Baby Gone” that it was a brilliant one, too. While “The Town,” with its amazingly filmed car chases, doesn’t soar quite as high as “Gone Baby Gone,” it comes damn close, this time with Affleck tackling the confused protagonist, Doug MacRay.

MacRay is a product of Charlestown, a Boston neighborhood pegged as a breeding ground for bank robbers. In Charlestown, bank robbery isn’t so much a crime as a learned trade. Doug’s father (Chris Cooper), now doing hard time for a job that went sour, served as walking, talking how-to guide. Doug hammered out the finer points with best friend James “Jem” Coughlin (Jeremy Renner) at his side. Now Doug’s the cool head behind a successful bank robbery ring. Success starts to come at a price as Jem, a wild card with a volcanic temper and no scruples, becomes increasingly unpredictable. He’s the reason MacRay’s team takes its first hostage, bank manager Claire Keesey (Rebecca Hall) — a mistake that proves doubly dangerous when they find out she lives just a few blocks from her office. Jem’s eerily content to “take care of her,” but MacRay takes a kinder approach: He chats her up at a laundromat, strikes up a friendship with her and ends up liking her. Affleck displays a blessedly careful touch on the romance angle, letting Claire and Doug’s relationship develop at a slow, unforced pace. Their bond feels delicate but real, and it gives Doug the push he needs to consider leaving Charlestown.

Skipping out, however, won’t be easy. There’s FBI agent Adam Frawley (Jon Hamm sporting a half-hearted Boston brogue), whose team encircles the bank robbers like hungry foxes closing in on a rabbit’s den. Renner’s splendidly unnerving Jem abides his own bizarre moral code and expects Doug to fall in line as well. Charlestown crime boss Fergie (Pete Postlethwaite, the only actor capable of making a florist seem menacing) isn’t keen on Doug skipping out the job, either. The walls are closing in on all sides for Doug, trapped by both his past and his present, and yet Affleck smartly holds back when he could have gone for weepy drama. One thing he doesn’t dial down is the violence. As much as there was in “Gone Baby Gone,” “The Town” has more — so much and so showy that it detracts from the more human storyline of Doug struggling with his loyalty to Charlestown and his desire to leave it in his rearview. The final act of “The Town” involves too many bloody showdowns to count, but there is a marvelous car chase filmed in such a ground-level way that it’s terrifying and captures the claustrophobic feel of Boston’s narrow streets.

Another strong point of “The Town” is Affleck’s ability to write characters that can’t be pigeonholed. Everyone exists in the gray areas. Renner, in an electrifying performance, plays Jem as unpredictable, scary and volatile, but he feels a brotherly protectiveness for Doug. Hamm’s hard-nosed cop has a moral flexibility that lets him to steamroll people to get what he wants. Claire’s anger toward Doug and her affection for him have her in an agonizing stalemate. The moral grayness gets drowned out by the gunfire and it’s underused, but it’s there and it’s powerful. How do you draw the line between “right” and “wrong” when loyalty is involved? Does that line even exist? “The Town” doesn’t answer, but what matters is that Affleck cares enough to pose the question.

Grade: B+

Nimble “Zombieland” a bloody good time

Be vewwy, vewwy quiet: Tallahassee (Woody Harrelson) and Columbus (Jesse Eisenberg) are huntin' zombies.

Be vewwy, vewwy quiet: Tallahassee (Woody Harrelson) and Columbus (Jesse Eisenberg) are huntin' zombies.

No matter how intelligent, urbane and evolved we humans fancy ourselves, there’s just no getting around it: Nothing beats watching a slobbering, crusty, stinking zombie get his skull smashed with a mallet. Or a baseball bat. Or a tire iron. Why is this so  satisfying? Because zombies, you see, exist solely to get murdalized.

And boy do they ever in “Zombieland,” a gonzo, bloody, ridiculously entertaining movie about a world overrun with mindless flesh-eaters and the two wildly different survivors — Tallahassee (Woody Harrelson), zombie killer extraordinaire, and the timid Columbus (Jesse Eisenberg) — who join forces more out of sheer boredom than any desire for human companionship. They are, we assume, the only humans to survive the fallout of a brain-swelling disease passed through cattle meat. And Tallahassee and Columbus kill a lot of zombies. Heaps of them. The hulking morons get slaughtered in such gleefully creative ways it makes me wonder if Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick, who penned the script, are brilliantly inventive or just didn’t get out much. It matters not. The kills (no, I’m not going to list them for you) are what make “Zombieland” wicked good.

Know what else makes “Zombieland” so entertaining? The characters, which sneak up on you in the midst of all those inventive ZKs (some are clear contenders for Zombie Kill of the Week). There’s something sweet and touching about the shy Columbus’ self-awareness; it’s obvious he understands that he let his fear — of girls, of clowns, of  life — cut off avenues for connection and emotional intimacy. Eisenberg, who should have Michael Cera quaking in his vintage cargo pants, drops these verbal bombshells with just the right amount of frankness and regret. “The first girl I let into my life and she tries to eat me,” he laments when he realizes his hot neighbor has morphed into a zombie. There’s far more bittersweet candor in this line than there has to be in a movie about lumbering liver-chewers and the people who blast ’em.

But back to the blasting. Columbus has managed to survive just fine using his rules, which include such gems as stressing the importance of cardio (“the fatties are the first to go”), the double tap (“don’t be afraid to use your ammunition”) and the perils of public restrooms. Tallahassee isn’t that cerebral. He’s a loner with nothing to lose and a mean hankering for Twinkies, and he’s transformed zombie killing into an art form. (Notice his nod to “Deliverance.” It’s thing of beauty.) These two make for an unusual pair, and their unconventional family gets even weirder when they happen upon Wichita (Emma Stone) and Little Rock (Abigail Breslin), two sisters who share a talent for working the short con. All four head off in search of a place where zombies don’t dwell, and along the way they end up in the posh home of the Greatest Movie Star in History.

(INTERJECTION: If there’s still a chance as small as a zombie’s IQ that you don’t know about the cameo, do NOT let anyone ruin it for you. Turn off your TV and Internet and radio, go all Howard Hughes and hoard tissue boxes to avoid genuine human contact — do whatever you have to do preserve the blessed element of surprise.)

So the body count and the gore, right? Completely disgusting, thoroughly enjoyable and mostly devoid of any of the sociopolitical commentary George Romero made famous. Nope, “Zombieland” is all about the sheer, unbridled joy of undead killin’, and it takes human form inTallahassee, played with characteristic drawl and zeal by Harrelson. (See, Christian Bale? Acting can be fun!) But the writers pepper in plenty of deadpan humor, and they make some half-hearted noise about how we should conquer our fears, learn to need people, seize the day. This touchy-feely stuff might seem out of place if not for Eisenberg, who gives “Zombieland” the very last thing anyone would expect: a heart. 

Grade: B+