Uncle Scam

Roger Dodger is buoyant, even when it’s grim; I Spy is disheveled and pointless.

Avuncular Campbell Scott in Roger Dodger

The rollicking downer Roger Dodger (Artisan Entertainment), written and directed by Dylan Kidd, opens with a burst of good, febrile chatter. In a dark Manhattan yuppie bar, adman Roger (Campbell Scott) dominates a discussion about sexual fulfillment, childbirth, and the propagation of the race. The men try to compete, but he’s too fast for them; the women are alternately appalled and charmed. Roger is the sort of fast-talking hustler who ends his bravura performances with an ironic flourish: “Thank you, I love you people.” He wins a fair amount of approbation for a man who works so hard to irritate his friends and enemies alike. Until, that is, he has a losing streak. Rejection doesn’t bring out the best in Roger. It turns him mean, desperate, and self-destructive.

Undiluted Roger would be tough to endure for 90 minutes, but the hook of Roger Dodger is the arrival of his nephew, Nick (Jesse Eisenberg), a teenage virgin desperate to get away from his mom and to learn to put the moves on women. Coldly blown off by his boss and lover (Isabella Rossellini), Roger attempts to make the boy a vessel for his own despairing cynicism. And of course, it backfires: Nick ends up enchanting assorted lovely ladies (among them the winsomely spontaneous Jennifer Beals and Elizabeth Berkley as a pair of party girls) simply by being sweet, open, and other non-Rogerish adjectives.

Roger Dodger reminded me, for better and worse, of such half-amusing, half-grueling studies in misanthropy as Simon Gray’s Butley (1974), in which the protagonist rails at or insults people for two hours before being left alone on an empty stage. The last act, in which Roger thrusts Nick on a drunken colleague (a touching Mina Badie) and then humiliates himself at his boss’s cocktail party, is unpleasant without being especially illuminating. (After previewing the film, Kidd reportedly added the airy, more upbeat denouement, which helps dispel some of the facile sourness.)

But even at its grimmest, the movie hums along, thanks to the edgy, hand-held, on-the-fly cinematography and the snappy performances. Jesse Eisenberg enlivens his deadpan with just the right notes of anxiety. And Campbell Scott is just as good as you’ve heard: From the start he shows you the anger that fuels the charm, so you’re not surprised when he turns out to be such a poor loser. The surprise is not that he goes down in flames, it’s that he could ever have flown so high.

I Spy: Witless, slovenly, and irrelevant

The best thing I can say about I Spy (Columbia) is that it’s not the worst Eddie Murphy movie of the year. (What is? The Adventures of Pluto Nash or Showtime? Who on earth would want to weigh them side-by-side?) But it’s in a class by itself as a mind-numbing irrelevance. The old TV series, with Robert Culp and Bill Cosby, had a nonchalant humor and won points by not making too much of its then-audacious interracial partnership. The casualness made it funny. Well, there’s nothing casual about the loud, overscaled movie—it’s only witless and slovenly. It’s the sort of movie where the heroes trade quips as they’re exchanging machine-gun fire or their plane is about to crash. How many more plane crashes and gun murders before this stuff is no longer a mindless hoot?

As the white one, Owen Wilson has a good, dazed surfer-boy shtick, but he doesn’t have much else in his histrionic arsenal. And he uses it too knowingly to be convincing as a shy guy who doesn’t know how to pick up women. (That’s some calculated ether.) Eddie Murphy plays the celebrity heavweight boxer tapped to be his partner on a mission to recover a spy plane in Budapest. Murphy is less than convincing as a boxer, but he’s too convincing as a swell-headed egotist. In one of the film’s many low points, he mocks the Hungarians for speaking Hungarian. After finally purging its Communists, Budapest needs this?