There are certain actors whose look indicates a certain persona, a certain life status, a certain lack of experience. I don’t know what it is about Jesse Eisenberg, but apparently every casting director he has encountered in his young career has immediately screamed “VIRGIN!” upon meeting him.
Eisenberg can most recently be seen as the callow lead in Adventureland, which opened on Friday, and in my review of said film I wrote “he shares with Michael Cera the ability to seem sincere even when he is making the gravest mess of things.” Indeed, there is a profound innocence to these two actors that gives them a leg up on most of their young peers–they actually seem to be the age that they are playing. This is a great help to a movie like Adventureland, whose success hinges on the authenticity and sincerity of the two romantic leads. Both performances (the other by Kristen Stewart) were great successes, and the movie is a real gem, the kind that reminds you how good it feels to be young.
Eisenberg’s other well-known performance is in The Squid and the Whale, where he played the adolescent son of two newly divorced New York intellectuals (played by Jeff Daniels and Laura Linney). He played a much more complex character in the film, one who had to come to grips with his hero worship of a deeply flawed father while slighting a caring mother who had made mistakes but wanted to rise above them. The film was fantastic (though the ending was a problem) and Eisenberg’s performance gave it a nice eccentricity balanced with realism; fast talking and hyper-articulate, his mind moves at a rate that voice can’t compete with, but his words are filtered through a self-consciousness that grounds the character.
Eisenberg brought a similar authenticity to Roger Dodger, a seldom remembered but simply outstanding character piece from 2002. Eisenberg plays Nick, an inexperienced 16-year-old who high tails it from his small town in Ohio to New York City for a visit with his uncle Roger (Campbell Scott), a Manhattan marketing executive and ladies man who seems capable of authoring several books on how to pick up a lady. Nick’s virginity is a skin he desperately wants to shed, and he enlists Roger to initiate his sexual education. The film follows this slightly twisted mentor-protege dynamic during one long New York night where Nick learns the bachelor life, but has to confront how far he will go for initiation into it.
That’s the plot, but there is far more to the movie than this. The movie belongs undeniably to Scott, who gives one of the most interesting lead performances I’ve seen in quite some time. Roger is not a cad, but a rugged reductionist capable of boiling just about any situation down to its essence. We see him at work in an early scene with a pretty young woman in a bar. She is there with some friends from work. He looks over and picks out one man as her boss, and deconstructs the reasons behind why she might want to sleep with him. Whether he is right or wrong is beside the point; director/writer Dylan Kidd uses the scene to set up both Roger’s social perceptiveness and his lack of self-reflexitvity, as he also is nursing a crush on his supervisor.
This is Joyce (Isabella Rosselinni), whose affair with Roger comes to an abrupt end in the film’s early scenes. He tries to convince himself that it will start up again, but Joyce seems to have moved on to Donovan (Ben Shenkman), Roger’s handsome coworker. Just when his frustration starts to simmer, Nick arrives unexpectedly. A distant nephew from a family Roger has tried to forget, Nick is both a reminder of the past and a geeky alter-ego. He simultaneously inhibits Roger’s social fluidity but also brings up troubling issues of family; during a dinner scene, Nick refers to Roger’s mother as crazy for continuing to make dinner for his father after she had left him. Roger clearly has some mommy issues, explored by Kidd via the maternal treatment he recieves from the much older Joyce during their breakup. It’s unclear why Roger chooses to tutor Nick, but it might be to punish him for the careless comment, as Roger becomes committed to showing his earnest pupil how complex male-female relations truly are.
Or, he just might want to talk a lot. Roger draws most of his confidence from his ability to speak intelligently, which leads to scene after scene of him speaking ad naseum about the intricacies of a pickup. He seems to think of himself as a great athlete in a new sport of sexual interaction, as he alludes to Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson, and “winning time” in breaking down the bachelor’s strategy for Nick. These sports stars have nothing on him though. “Try working someone in a bar for three hours and then have to close the deal just before last call,” he tells Nick, “that’s pressure.”
Roger has all of these strategies down pat, but is confident enough to be totally flip about them; in setting up a test-interaction for Nick in a bar, he merely picks the beautiful Andrea (Elizabeth Berkely) out of crowd and waits for the kid to think of a line as she walks over. It is this kind of confidence that makes Scott an absolute joy to watch–few actors have the command to own a character like this, but Scott does, and manages to be funny while never throwing anything away.
The visual style and tone of the film indicate that we are heading for dark territory, but it isn’t so dark that we feel James Spader should pop up and say “where have you guys been?” Kidd is comfortable with his film being a comedy with a lot of complexity to it rather than a comedy that turns dead serious after a while. There are some tough beats when Roger takes Nick to a party at Joyce’s apartment, a party that he has specifically not been invited to, and makes a scene, and another where a brothel comes in to play, but the movie never makes the right turn that you think it is going to.
The film is basically about great dialogue, and Scott and Eisenberg are a lot of fun to watch. There is a great one-shot scene where Roger and Nick discuss strategies for eyeing women, and Scott plays it like a drill sergeant taking a recruit through his first day at basic. Eisenberg plays Nick as an awkward, slightly eccentric kid, something that prompts a good deal of chewing out from Roger; when he refuses a drink at the bar, Roger barks “alcohol has been a social lubricant for thousands of years. You don’t use one night on the town as an excuse to reinvent the wheel.” When Nick reveals that he wants to be cryongenically frozen upon death and reveals the themometer setting on his watch, Roger, pondering how this will look to women, muses “keep it. It’s just spastic enough to seem charming.”
The movie ultimately works because you wind up believing in the relationship between this shy kid and his shady uncle. We obviously have to confront the moral terrain of whether or not Roger exposing Nick to these things is right or wrong, but Kidd is smart enough not to get uber-sentimental about it. We kind of know instinctively that Roger isn’t gonna let his nephew do anything that salacious, but Eisenberg is so interesting that we are never sure what he is willing to do in order to achieve his objective. It is his authenticity as the naive kid that makes the movie work.
This movie really was excellent. Scott usually plays more conventional roles (he was the romantic lead in Cameron Crowe’s Singles and the prosecuting attorney in The Exorcism of Emily Rose) but here shows the heights that he is truly capable of. It is a crime that he wasn’t nominated for an Oscar for Roger Dodger, which also should have been at least in the running for a screenplay nomination. And for Eisenberg–he’s the best nice guy in the business. Sooner or later they will cast him as a guy who has already had sex before the story begins.