Screenplay : Amy Heckerling
MPAA Rating : PG-13
Year of Release : 2000
Stars : Jason Biggs (Paul Tannek), Mena Suvari (Dora Diamon), Greg Kinnear (Prof. Edward Alcott), Thomas Sadoski (Chris), Zak Orth (Adam), Jimmi Simpson (Noah)
Poor Paul. A gentle, decent Midwestern farm kid who finds himself without a clue in the middle of New York City for his freshman year in college, his life is one excruciating embarrassment after another. Clumsy, ill-advised in his clothing choices, short on money, and too nice for his own good, he finds life in the Big Apple to be far more complex than he imagined, and his sheer decency keeps him from realizing that everyone around him thinks he's a loser.
It is no surprise that the writer/director of this film is Amy Heckerling. Paul, who is played with ingratiating naiveté by Jason Biggs ("American Pie"), is remarkably similar to another character from one of Heckerling's earlier films: Brian "Rat" Ratner from "Fast Times at Ridgemont High" (1982). (In fact, Brian Backer, the actor who played Rat in "Fast Times," make a cameo appearance in "Loser" as a doctor.) Like Rat, Paul is just too nice, and he ends up paying for it. One of Heckerling's consistent themes in her teen-oriented movies (which also include 1995's "Clueless") is that good kids get constantly trampled on by others, but they win in the end through the very decency that, at first, is a sign of their "loserdom."
In "Loser," the worst of the worst is represented by Paul's three roommates, Adam (Zak Orth), Chris (Tom Sadoski) and Noah (Jimmi Simpson), all of whom are self-absorbed rich kids who don't have time to study--they're too busy playing drinking games, getting their coiffures professionally grunged at the hair salon, and buying date rape pills. Paul stands out from them completely, both in terms of his unstylish appearance (his roommates dress in the slightly androgynous style of the '80s pop group Duran Duran, a look that must be making a comeback in New York) and his basic humanity. In these roommates, Heckerling has created some truly vile people.
So, it is of little surprise that they tire of Paul and get him kicked out of the dorm, so he goes to live in the back room of a veterinary clinic. Meanwhile, in yet another instance of why nice guys are always at risk of finishing last, Paul is pining away hopelessly for one of his fellow classmates, Dora Diamond (Mena Suvari, who played the complex teenage seductress in "American Beauty"). Paul knows he doesn't have a chance because Dora is secretly involved with Professor Edward Alcott (Greg Kinnear), a narcissistic literature professor who treats Dora like dirt, insults her intelligence, yet still manages to hold onto her affections. Prof. Alcott is actually worse that Paul's roommates in that he has an additional 15 years of life experience, yet he is no more mature.
Not surprisingly, "Loser" ends up being a romance between Paul and Dora, as they become friends and she slowly comes to realize that spending her time with men like Prof. Alcott is a waste when there are decent guys like Paul in the world. In essence, it is the Rat-Stacey-Damone love triangle from "Fast Times at Ridgemont High" played out as the main storyline. This, of course, requires that Dora be infatuated with a man who obviously thinks little of her for a period of time that is almost excruciatingly long. It is a standard plot device, and if it works at all in "Loser," it is because the performers are so appealing.
Jason Biggs plays Paul as a guy who is completely out of touch with everything hip and in style, so much so that it becomes his signature. He is almost painfully practical; when Dora asks him why he wears an awful-looking wool cap with ear flaps, he replies quite matter-of-factly that 90% of heat escapes through your head. Dora is different in that she consciously plays up the urban grunge look with heavy eye make-up and black boots, yet she fits in no better than Paul does. In other words, as two outcasts swimming upstream against everything from relationships to finances, they're perfect for each other. It just takes Dora the whole film to figure that out.
Along the way, there are some solid laughs and a few affecting moments. Heckerling has a good rhythm to her dialogue, and she invests her characters with interesting traits and realistic quirks that make them stand out and be believable at the same time. Her teen characters are consistently more engaging that most movie teenagers simply because they feel more real. If the film suffers, it is because of the been-there-done-that feel of the plot. The film has just enough energy to keep it going, but not enough to lift it completely above its labored romantic premise.
Copyright ©2000 James Kendrick