Student Affair

Boy talk: Campbell Scott (left) is an adman who takes his nephew (Jesse Eisenberg, right) out for a night on the town.Photo: Peter Figetakis

In Roger Dodger, a fascinating, uneven first feature from the young writer-director Dylan Kidd, Campbell Scott plays a cynical, womanizing adman with such brittle intensity that you half expect him to shatter before your eyes. Roger is so on that in his rare moments of repose, when he isn’t dodging something or someone, he’s practically diaphanous – he becomes his own hologram. Scott has always been a powerfully contained screen presence, but this is the first time he’s opened up all the hatches. He’s in the movie almost continually, and yet he’s never tiresome because he keeps wringing new variations on Roger’s ghastly self-absorption.

The movie takes place in Manhattan over 24 hours. Roger has just been dumped by his current conquest (Isabella Rossellini), who also happens to be his boss. (What really riles Roger is not that she dumped him but that she has him figured out.) Nick (Jesse Eisenberg), his 16-year-old nephew from Ohio, shows up unexpectedly at his office. He is supposedly in town to look at colleges, but his real mission is to learn the ropes from his ladies’-man uncle, and Roger is fanatically obliging. He’s like a drill sergeant in heat.

Kidd keeps Roger and Nick in constant flux; whether they are in the car-jammed streets or a low-lit singles bar, the camera always seems to be eavesdropping on them. The effect is like watching jittery surveillance footage, and it’s annoying. Probably, Kidd thought that a rock-steady approach would draw undue attention to what is essentially a two-character piece, but with performances like these, he needn’t have worried.

A larger cause for concern is Kidd’s overfondness for pat storytelling and wet epiphanies about male vanity. The movie is framed as a duet between Roger’s smart-ass “wisdom” and Nick’s naïveté. In the course of a long night’s journey into day, the teacher becomes the pupil. Roger is shown to be the true naïf, while Nick is wise beyond his years. (He actually respects women.) This is way too schematic and diminishes what is shockingly funny about the movie. Kidd’s compulsion to give Roger his comeuppance neutralizes what we most relish about him – his scurviness. Roger is fond of saying that advertising makes people feel bad about themselves so they’ll buy products they don’t need; in the same way, his adman tactics with women are all centered on the put-down. He’s a flagrant version of a familiar urban species: the bachelor executive who equates male-female relations with “closing the deal.” Does he really need to be brought down low so that we might see through him? (As if we don’t anyway.) Kidd may think it’s his civic duty to condemn Roger, but that’s not where his truest instincts lie. His movie is most fully alive when Roger is bristling with battle plans.

The dramatic arc of Roger Dodger may be banal, but Kidd manages some marvelous moments. Best is a scene in a singles bar where Roger encourages two ladies to talk to Nick and, basically, get him laid. Sophie (Jennifer Beals) and Andrea (Elizabeth Berkley) know full well that Roger is a heat-seeking missile – they’re as wised up as he is – and yet they’re genuinely affected by the boy. His innate sweetness transforms them into erotic caregivers, and they are tremendously flattered to be present at his sexual initiation, even if it’s just a kiss. Roger wouldn’t be such an effective cad if Nick weren’t so impeccably selfless. The boy’s virtue is the perfect counterpoint to Roger’s nastiest arias. Innocence may not hold a candle to corruption here, but in his own free-form way, Eisenberg holds his own with the tight-wound Scott. In the underworld of this movie, his Nick has a gleam of decency.

Mike Leigh’s All or Nothing attempts nothing he hasn’t done before and done better. I was hoping that after Topsy-Turvy, his marvelous movie about Gilbert and Sullivan, Leigh would continue to venture beyond the borders of what has become all-too-familiar terrain for him: the sodden lives of the contemporary working class. Leigh has done as much as any English director to give those lives a fullness, and even in a half-baked effort like All or Nothing, his empathy is certainly on view. But the empathy never lifts off – never becomes poetry. It doesn’t help that Leigh indulges his unfortunate habit of larding the soundtrack with draggy, mournful music, heavy on the cello. We’re stuck for over two hours watching a gaggle of dispirited people in a housing project in South London, and their existences don’t really add up to much of a panorama. Leigh must feel the same way, because he eventually settles on one narrative about a sad-faced cabbie, Phil Bassett (played by Leigh veteran Timothy Spall, who looks like a Wind in the Willows version of Christopher Hitchens), and his sad-faced family. Phil is so inchoate with the blahs that he seems retarded; his wife, Penny (the wonderful Lesley Manville), doesn’t get much succor from him or her two very overweight children. Her son spends most of the movie making a large crease in the sofa and yelling “Fuck off.” We have to take Penny’s word for it when she says that Phil used to make her laugh.

Are you ready for Salma Hayek as Frida Kahlo? Don’t panic: Frida’s famous mustache has been dispensed with, though the unibrow remains. For years, Jennifer Lopez and Madonna were also pushing their own Kahlo projects, so I suppose we should be grateful that Hayek won out, although a Madonna version might well have been deliciously bad. The Frida we have, directed by Julie Taymor, is neither terrible nor excellent; Hayek, who also co-produced, may have obsessed for years about this project, but the result is a fairly standard this-happened-and-that-happened biopic about the Mexican artist, spiced by occasional moments in which Kahlo’s paintings are made to morph into live action. Taymor, who made her movie-directing debut with the startling Titus, takes a disappointingly conventional approach to character, and except for the luscious palette she employs, her visual approach is pretty flat, too. Hayek is a bundle of energy, but her torridness has few emotional levels. Alfred Molina plays Kahlo’s husband, the great muralist Diego Rivera, and Geoffrey Rush, looking like a revolutionary billy goat, plays Trotsky. They could have worked a bit more on their accents. Actually, Hayek’s accent, which is authentic, sounds phony, too. She was probably just being hospitable to her co-stars.

Roger Dodger
Directed by Dylan Kidd; starring Campbell Scott and Jesse Eisenberg.
All or Nothing
Directed by Mike Leigh; starring Timothy Spall and Lesley Manville.
Directed by Julie Taymor; starring Salma Hayek and Alfred Molina.

Student Affair