Every society has had some version of the singles scene, however unrecognizable modern Americans might find it. And most of these have surely been typified by the kind of frantic scrambling for attention that's vividly etched in movies like "Looking for Mr. Goodbar" and, even more obsessively, the current "Auto Focus."
"Roger Dodger" is one of the smartest takes on singles culture I've seen in a long time. It is sympathetic to main characters even when they're badly misguided, and sharply satirical of the territory they're vainly trying to navigate. Funny, sad, and skeptical in about equal measures, it announces writer-director Dylan Kidd as a filmmaker with a bright future.
The title character, Roger Swanson, is a 40-ish advertising writer who somehow thinks he's the lady killer of the decade, despite much evidence pointing to the opposite conclusion.
After being ditched by his lover, who also happens to be his boss at the ad agency, he gets an unexpected visit from his 16-year-old nephew Nick, whom he considers an ideal protégé to inherit his vast wisdom in the arts of bar-hopping and seduction. Together they set off into the New York night, where Roger's temerity and Nick's timidity prove a predictably poor combination.
As shaggily comical as it often is, "Roger Dodger" has two serious themes at its core. One is the age-old clash between innocence and experience, embodied by Nick's eagerness to grow up which he thinks is synonymous with having sex and Roger's insistence that he has the answers to every question of life and love.
The other is the power of self-delusion, which wallops Roger during moments in his compulsive quest to dazzle and seduce women who simply don't like him very much. And who can blame them? Roger's antics are as repetitious as they are ridiculous.
Campbell Scott has been growing as an actor, and his performance as Roger stands with the best work he's done, dancing his quirky character along the fine line between likable rogue and risible loser without missing a step.
Jesse Eisenberg is also excellent as his fellow not-so-swinging single, who turns out to be hiding a secret or two of his own. Expert support comes from Isabella Rossellini, perfectly cast as Roger's most recent lover, and from Jennifer Beals and Elizabeth Berkley as nightclubbing friends who buzz around Roger's romantic spider web because Nick's naiveté sparks their curiosity.
If this were a big-studio production instead of an indie release from Artisan Entertainment, it would have strong prospects in the Oscar race for Scott's acting and Kidd's directing. I think it still stands a chance. It has already won several prizes, including the Lion of the Future award at the Venice film festival.
See it with a date ... if you dare.
Rated R for sex and vulgarity.