The Big Picture

  • The Tribeca Film Festival honored Roger Dodger with the Best Narrative Feature.
  • Roger Dodger
    features Jesse Eisenberg in his feature film debut, setting the template for future performances.
  • Hollywood’s focus on toxic male mentors persists throughout Eisenberg’s future characters.



The Tribeca Film Festival, a platform for independent cinema held annually in Lower Manhattan, was conceived as a direct response to the attacks of September 11th. So it’s perhaps unsurprising that at the festival’s debut year in 2002, the award for Best Narrative Feature went to Roger Dodger, which was filmed and set in Manhattan’s bars and offices. It was a little bit of kismet that the festival had a film with a New York City pedigree to celebrate, and over 20 years later, Roger Dodger is still one of Tribeca’s most exciting debuts. The movie, set largely during the course of one night, when cynical advertising executive Roger Swanson attempts to teach his wide-eyed nephew Nick the ways of seduction, features an amazing cast for a debut film (from writer-director Dylan Kidd), in particular boasting a committed performance from Campbell Scott as the oily motormouth Roger. But the film is most noteworthy for being the feature film debut of Jesse Eisenberg as Nick. Eisenberg plays Nick as an inherently sweet kid whose desire to lose his virginity compels him to trust his uncle’s predatory dating advice. It is a role that set the template for multiple Eisenberg performances to come, as men who are tempted and corrupted by toxic male mentors.


Roger Dodger poster

Roger Dodger

After breaking up with his lover and boss, a smooth-talking man takes his teenaged nephew out on the town in search of sex.

Run Time
106 minutes

Director
Dylan Kidd

Release Date
October 25, 2002

Actors
Campbell Scott, Jesse Eisenberg, Isabella Rossellini, Elizabeth Berkley, Jennifer Beals


What is ‘Roger Dodger’ About?

Before Mad Men’s Don Draper, there was Roger Swanson, an ad man who believes that the strategies for manipulating urges he learns at his day job can and should be imported into his personal life. Like Don, Roger attempts to market himself to a mass audience of women – though with far less success than his TV counterpart. When the movie opens, Roger is in the middle of a messy breakup with his boss, Joyce (Isabella Rossellini). She’s just broken up with him, and his desperate need to avoid being hurt is leading him to increasingly erratic attempts to force himself back into her affections.


Roger presents himself as an invulnerable ladies’ man, who understands the essential needs of women too well to ever strike out. In the first ten minutes of the movie, we learn that this is a pathetic facade, but when his nephew Nick drops in from Ohio for an unannounced visit, it’s clear that he believes the myth that his uncle is a successful womanizer. Worse, he’s hoping Roger can help him lose his virginity before he goes to college.

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The bulk of the film unfolds over the ensuing night. Roger first sneaks the 16-year-old Nick into a bar, where he sells his nephew on his rancid theory of seduction. According to Roger, women exist to be objectified, and men win female attention by employing emotional manipulation grounded in contempt. Roger goads Nick into testing these theories with Andrea and Sophia (Elizabeth Berkley and Jennifer Beals). The two women immediately see through Roger’s sexist swagger, but nevertheless go through a complex pantomime of a “double date” with him and Nick, whom they find appealingly innocent.


After this encounter runs its course (in an unpredictable and surprisingly sweet fashion), Roger shepherds Nick through a night of increasingly dangerous events. First, they crash a work party, where Roger encourages Nick to sexually assault a drunken colleague, which Nick ultimately realizes he shouldn’t do (though the film somewhat underplays the gravity of the situation). Finally, Roger takes Nick to a brothel, where he finally has something resembling a crisis of conscience over the lessons he is imparting to his impressionable nephew. But at that point, it may be too late.

‘Roger Dodger’ Is a Time Capsule of the Early 2000s in Many Ways


Roger Dodger is brisk and engaging, and creates real tension over the fates of its two self-destructive leads. It’s also a bit of a time capsule. The themes it fixates on were already familiar, and would soon become overly so. In 2005, journalist NeilStrauss published his book The Game: Penetrating the Secret Society of Pickup Artists, bringing even more attention to the so-called “pick-up culture.” From Barney in How I Met Your Mother to Will Smith in Hitch, the male dating guru became a media staple.

The movie’s take on predatory male seduction seems pretty routine on the surface, but it’s actually more layered the closer you look. When the movie came out, director Dylan Kidd was frequently compared to 90s indie breakout Neil LaBute. LaBute’s debut, In the Company of Men, deals with a lot of the same themes of male resentment and rage being channeled into seduction strategies grounded in misogyny. But whereas Aaron Eckhart’s “alpha male” Chad is a monster who cannot be defeated, Campbell Scott’s Roger is something different. His pickup methods are seen as pathetic; he always strikes out. The seduction guru persona he puts out is more clearly a mask, hiding something odder and more vulnerable. Roger Dodger‘s strangeness isn’t always a good thing – its offbeat ending is ambiguous, but also a little incoherent – but it prevents the film from ever feeling predictable, despite its familiar subject.


Jesse Eisenberg Would Revisit the Themes of ‘Roger Dodger’ in Later Roles

In interviews around the time of the film’s release, Kidd described discovering Jesse Eisenberg, then an unknown high school actor, as an “epiphany,” because it finally demonstrated “there was an actor who exists on planet Earth” who could play the role of Nick. Often, when a role is difficult to cast, it’s because it requires an actor who is more than just talented, but also has the ability to portray multiple specific, often contradictory, qualities. Often, the ability to embody these contradictions proves an actor’s most valuable asset. For Eisenberg, this would seem to be the case, as he would go on to play characters similar to Nick many times: impressionable, needy men who fall under the sway of an even more toxic male.


Eisenberg’s next major role came in Noah Baumbach’sThe Squid and the Whale, playing Walt Berkman, who idolizes his father Bernard (Jeff Daniels). Walt’s parents are going through a messy divorce, and his father is a failed novelist who fills Walt’s head with his own resentments. Taking his father’s absurd advice not to tie himself down to one woman, he sabotages his relationship with his girlfriend Sophie. In The Social Network, Eisenberg took on his most celebrated role to date, as Facebook founder MarkZuckerberg. Zuckerberg is depicted as arrogant about his tech skills and business foresight, but so insecure over his past rejections by women that he easily falls under the sway of Sean Parker (Justin Timberlake), the bad boy party animal founder of Napster, who convinces him to turn on his decent and staid best friend, Eduardo (Andrew Garfield). His roles in The Art of Self-Defense and as the Snyderverse‘ tormented Lex Luthor fit this mold as well.


Hollywood’s Fascination With Bad Male Mentors Interrogates How Toxic Masculinity Perseveres

Bernard on the tennis court in The Squid and the Whale

Of course, there are so many roles like this for Eisenberg to play because there’s an ongoing fascination with how toxic masculinity continues to be passed down across generations. In Roger Dodger, Roger is not only a bad role model for Nick, but he himself has internalized his values after watching his own father’s behavior. Roger’s moment of awareness comes when he sees an older male client at the brothel he takes Nick to, and realizes that he is continuing a multi-generational cycle of indoctrination into bad values.


The challenge these movies encounter is deciding how much culpability the mentees in these relationships bear for their own corruption. Nick may be a sweet kid, but he has a misguided fixation on losing his virginity that makes him vulnerable to Roger’s manipulations. Sean Parker may be a malevolent deviant, but Mark Zuckerberg is a seething mass of sexual resentment well before he enters the picture. And yet, Nick (like Zuck, a computer whiz) is portrayed as a basically decent kid, and Zuckerberg is not. Perhaps this reflects the recent growing suspicion of the stereotypical “nice guy.”

In pick-up culture, the figure of the “nice guy” represents the man who refuses to engage in manipulative seductive techniques on moral grounds, only to end up rejected and alone. In the 2010s, the frustration of self-described “nice guys” was frequently criticized: these men believed that life had been unfair to them, because decent behavior should be “rewarded” with sexual attention. In the Social Network’s pivotal opening scene, Mark’s girlfriend (Rooney Mara) touches on this, calling Mark out for his self-pitying belief that his dating woes result from being a nerd, when actually, his problem is that he’s “an asshole.” Perhaps the bad male role models aren’t even necessary. Could each generation of men be teaching themselves how to be toxic?


The nice thing for Jesse Eisenberg is that he doesn’t need to be able to answer these questions. With a face like Ozymandias, and a voice that pivots with startling speed from puppyish to frightening intensity (he’s actually never more menacing in Roger Dodger than he is when describing his goal-oriented meditation techniques), it doesn’t matter if we think his nerd-led-astray characters are innocent victims of a poisonous culture, or selfish men looking for an excuse to misbehave. Eisenberg can play it both ways.

Roger Dodger is available to rent on Amazon in the U.S.

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