I found myself changing my mind in various ways about Roger Dodger and about the title character as the movie went along.
The movie is about a middle-aged hotshot white collar sleazy guy who cynically uses his understanding of human psychology to identify and exploit weaknesses in women so as to attract them and get sex from them. (It’s pretty much the same skill set he uses in his career, since he’s an advertising executive.) The bulk of the movie takes place over the course of a long evening where he takes his sixteen year old nephew with him to bars and parties, and seeks to teach him the tricks of the trade.
He’s an unpleasant fellow from the beginning, but intriguingly unpleasant in a way. But in reacting that way, I’m sort of already playing his game. He’s unlikable in an attention-grabbing way, which is great for picking up women. He’s one of those guys women criticize as too arrogant, too frank and insensitive to people’s feelings in what they say to and about people, too emotionally distant, too dominating, etc.—and end up in bed with. He’s a prick, but he pisses women off in a way that’s effective toward his ends.
Indeed, that could be lesson number one in scoring with women (or just in influencing people in general): Make sure they can’t ignore you. On the surface it might not seem like a promising start to come across to a woman as something bad (e.g., a cocky jerk), but you know who’s a lot less likely to screw that woman? Someone she doesn’t know exists.
And unfortunately it’s also a more effective approach than making a woman aware of you by doing things that are more indicative of being a good person. Because all too often, all the latter will achieve is getting you stuck in the dreaded “nice guy” or “friend” category.
Like I say, the very first scene establishes all this. The title character is pontificating with a certain cynical wit about the sexes, and why people respond to what they do, and the evolutionary reasons things are the way they are, and on and on. Some of it’s probably true, some of it’s pseudo-scientific claptrap, some of it’s exaggerated for effect, and some of it’s in a gray area and I don’t know quite what I think of it. Already at a gut level I dislike him, I dislike his general style, and my reaction to his assessment of people as manipulable simpletons governed by biology and instinct is that I’m not sure if I’m more bothered by the extent to which he’s spouting bullshit or by the extent to which it’s true.
Yet as I’m responding to the substance of him and what he’s saying, I’m also noting the human dynamics of the scene. He’s the one keeping control of the floor. He’s the one acting while others are reacting. He’s the one sending the message that he’s confident of his intelligence and verbal dexterity, and the message that he doesn’t care if he pisses people off by saying “controversial” things. He’s the one women will notice and feel challenged by, not the beta males nervously making jokes to try to lighten the mood.
So anyway, Roger and the kid go to a bar, and Roger easily gets a couple of attractive women to join them. (Minor complaint; This is ubiquitous in movies and TV, but somehow these people are able to converse at normal volume and hear each other (and be heard by viewers) in a bar. In real life, bar communication involves a lot more body language, facial expressions, leaning in and shouting in someone’s ear, etc., which seriously affects the dynamics of, among other things, hitting on women. But I guess this is one of those “movie things,” like people from other planets speaking English, where you just have to play along.)
Contrary to Roger’s insistent advice, the kid can’t help being honest and approaching things as if a genuine emotional connection is at least as important as the sex. The women find this refreshing and fascinating, and by the time they leave he’s gotten his first adult kiss and a lot of compliments and positive attention, whereas they’d developed a clear dislike for Roger.
At first I’m kind of rooting for that, as of course I don’t want Roger’s approach to work, and I’d like to think being real would be effective in attracting women. But then I started going the other way, because of course a movie can create a make-believe world where the good guys do better than the bad guys. I can’t enjoy it too much, because I know they stacked the deck in order to create an implausible comeuppance for the guy who represents exploiters and phonies.
But as I thought about it, I changed my mind some more. For one thing, did Roger really fail? He claims he purposely behaved rudely and turned them away from him precisely to make his nephew look better in their eyes. (He was the “bad cop,” he says.) Maybe he just made that up after the fact to rationalize his failure, but at least it adds some ambiguity to the assessment.
But let’s say he’s bullshitting, and in fact he did strike out. How realistic or unrealistic is that when you think about it? Because I think you can make a case that he’s not got the “right stuff” to be a great seducer after all.
As I noted, he has some of the shtick down quite well, he sends some of the right signals. But on the other hand, he comes across as a very negative, cynical person, and I think that could hurt his effectiveness. He’s too explicit in his contempt for people and in his declarations of how they can be manipulated. I don’t know that people who are that self-aware and open about such things really fare all that well in getting what they want from people. Far better to be a son of a bitch but to be convinced otherwise—to pursue an approach roughly like his, but to be blissfully unaware that the fact that you’re doing it and it works says anything bad about yourself or the people you’re manipulating.
When it comes to “winning friends and influencing people,” it’s only a slight oversimplification to say that if you’re aware you’re playing games, you’re probably not playing them very well. Self-deception tends to be very helpful in deceiving others.
So maybe what’s unrealistic is not his not ending up with a woman on this occasion, but the notion that he’s a great womanizer in the first place. Ah, but then I thought about that, and I had to wonder if the movie ever really claims that that’s what he is. I’d been operating under the assumption all along that this is a movie about a guy who’s real slick at getting women to go for him, but maybe it’s a movie about a guy who tries to be that, or claims to be that, or believes himself to be that, but really isn’t.
Because what’s the evidence he’s so good at this? Almost the whole movie takes place that one evening, and he certainly doesn’t go home with a woman on that occasion. Prior to that, we’re made aware he’s been screwing his boss, so that’s something, but she dumps him and he takes it poorly. Whereas if he were such a player, presumably he’d be the one doing the dumping and thinking nothing of it as he moves on to fresh conquests.
And as I went back and forth on him, and re-assessed how realistic a character he is and how plausible are his successes and failures, it also occurred to me that the sixteen year old’s success isn’t so implausible. Because in a sense he really doesn’t succeed.
Yes he’s the one who gets the positive attention from the women, but he doesn’t go home with them either. They like him, but only if he stays in the box they’ve chosen for him. At the first sign he wants something physical, or even just some further contact with them beyond this one occasion, he’s rebuffed with a smiling “Don’t ruin this.” Because the sweet and innocent honest kid is appealing and refreshing to them at a certain level, but not as a sex partner or anything serious. That is, he’s the classic “nice guy,” the guy women like and praise and say they wish other guys were like, etc.—and don’t sleep with.
So in that sense it’s not so unrealistic that he’d attract them.
I don’t know. I just think there is a lot to consider about what the movie’s saying about these characters and the dynamics of attracting women. I found myself changing my mind or at least realizing there were other possible interpretations of multiple points, as indicated.
I found myself somewhat puzzled by a key scene late in the movie. Roger buys his nephew a hooker at a whorehouse, and the nephew goes along with it with obvious hesitation and trepidation. When he and the girl are alone in her little cubicle, he’s still ambivalent at best about it, imploring her to slow down.
Roger then bursts into the room, grabs him, and starts to hustle him out. The angry hooker jumps between them, and she and Roger tussle as the nephew runs out of the establishment. Roger gets free of her and soon follows him out the door. The nephew angrily rushes him, and they wrestle around for a while, with Roger seemingly not angry himself but just trying to protect himself and subdue him. They end up driving away wordlessly in a cab.
OK, so my best guess is Roger realized that whatever the merits of prostitution and tawdry sex and such in general, there’s something about the purity of the sixteen year old that really isn’t compatible with that, and so maybe it’s not such a good idea to be pushing him into this. So he changes his mind and “rescues” his nephew from the situation he’d put him in. And the nephew, though relieved at a certain level, feels that for reasons of male ego or whatever, he has to react violently when someone deprives him of available sex. (Or, alternately, maybe it’s not the rescuing he’s mad about, but the fact that his uncle brought him there in the first place. That is, maybe if the sex had happened, he’d be even angrier about it. So now he’s just somewhat angry because his uncle took partial steps toward ruining his innocence.)
Whatever. My problem with this kind of thing in movies is, how are the characters themselves so easily able to interpret these things that they don’t have to verbalize any of it?
I’ve written about this kind of thing earlier in these pieces. It’s kind of the opposite of when movies have the characters say too much in order to clarify things for the viewers. (I remember a classic example of this from an occasion I was watching Speed Racer with some friends, so we could laugh at how bad a show it is. In this particular episode, one of the characters exclaims out of nowhere, “Here we are in the Alps, Speed!” We all burst out laughing immediately at how the writers hadn’t been able to figure out any way to convey that fact to the viewers except to have a character say it, in a situation that no one in a million years would say it in real life.)
This is at the other end of the scale. In order to avoid “dumbing down” the movie, the writers leave certain things to the viewers to figure out and interpret for themselves. But the problem is, in order to do that, they have the characters communicate a lot less than they probably would in real life.
I mean, is Roger so confident that his nephew knows exactly why he dragged him out of there that he sees no reason to try to explain or justify? Is the nephew so confident that his reasons for angrily charging his uncle outside the establishment are so self-evident that they need no verbalization? Is there nothing for them to talk about, defend, argue about, apologize for after the fact?
In real life, I have to think if I were either of these characters I’d be making at least some effort to clarify and seek clarification for what the heck just happened. A movie that lacks such dialogue may thereby signal that it’s for grown-ups and that it’s trying to be all deep and challenging by not explaining everything, but it’s frankly unrealistic.
In reading some reviews, it appears most critics disliked the ending, where Roger decides to reach out to his estranged sister, and seems to be at least somewhat willing to reconsider his priorities and values. That’s seen by many as implausible redemption.
I don’t have strong feelings about it one way or the other. I agree guys like that typically aren’t going to change in any big way, so it’s not very believable that his nephew’s genuineness would reveal to him the error of his ways. But the thing is, I don’t know how much is really being suggested in that direction. Roger is depicted as making some move that way, but it’s a pretty limited move for now. If you read into it that that’s going to end up a wholesale life change, then yeah, it’s a stretch. But I don’t know that the movie requires that reading.
On the whole I would rank Roger Dodger somewhere around the middle of the movies I’ve written about so far. It provides an occasion to think about the dynamics of male-female attraction and the dating games and such, and it does so in a way that’s at least halfway intelligent and entertaining.