by Jon Bastian
Not even the mighty Jason Biggs can save this one.
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Memo to Amy Heckerling: you owe me ninety-nine minutes of my life back. The subway ride to and from the theatre was more interesting than what you put on screen.
Loser is such a pathetic, wandering mess that I don’t know where to start, except to say that the blame rests entirely with the writer, Amy Heckerling, whose script is about as inspired as a blood clot — and the director, Amy Heckerling, who trots out an endless series of big name cameos and flashy clothing and decor to try to distract from the turkey of a script she’s stuck herself with. Almost twenty years ago, she directed the mother of all teen comedies, Fast Times at Ridgemont High. It’s been downhill ever since, but she’s finally passed sea level, going the wrong way fast. To be fair, Loser isn’t so much a teen comedy as it is a college freshman romance, but in order to pull one of those off, there has to be, oh, I don’t know — romance and chemistry between the leads, for a start. This film has neither.
You know you’re in trouble when even Jason Biggs’s (American Pie) screen presence, talent, charisma and looks can’t save a film. He’s ably abetted by Mena Suvari (American Beauty) and Greg Kinnear (As Good As It Gets) but, to paraphrase a far, far better movie, Fight Club, they’re all just polishing brass on the Titanic. Not even the Titanic — this sinker wouldn’t fill a dingy from the Lusitania.
Of course, the college romance genre has one big built-in problem. Everybody knows from frame one that boy and girl are going to hook up by the end. What keeps things interesting is how the near misses or false starts or other problems are orchestrated. Orchestrated is the key word here, in the sense of being fit together harmoniously, musically, naturally. Do that, you get a symphony. If, instead of orchestration, you use machination, all you get is a rusty, broken-down music box that only hits the wrong notes.
Guess which one we get here.
The story in a nutshell: Paul Tannek (Biggs) is a good kid from some vaguely midwestern/prairie town. How do we know he’s good? He dances with his little sister at his going away to college party, and sneaks the money grandpa presses on him back in the old man’s pocket. Of course, Paul isn’t exactly suited for New York City, where he presumably winds up at NYU. I say presumably because Washington Square Park, which is NYU, is prominent in the film, but the school is never mentioned by name. I’ll bet a dime NYU wanted nothing to do with this turkey, which is why the school is anonymous.
Anyway, Paul arrives and is branded a loser. How do we know he’s a loser? Because he wears his Elmer Fudd hat everywhere, so, obviously… He moves into Hunts Hall (Get it, get it? Wink wink…) and is soon ostracized by his (quickly ex) suitemates from hell — Chris (Thomas Sadoski), Adam (Zak Orth) and Noah (Jimmi Simpson) — the three of whom, of course, could comfortably wear the label of loser, with a capital “L.” I don’t know if it was intentional or not on Heckerling’s part, but both Chris and Noah come off as, well, rather queeny, despite being two-thirds of the obligatory always mackin’ for the hoochies trio. Chris in particular is sending big ass mixed signals — he dresses like a refugee from the New York Dolls, and dances awfully well for a straight boy. And pretty suggestively. In front of Paul. Right before having a heart-to-heart with him about how everyone thinks he’s a loser. If you ask me, in subtext, this was the real unrequited romance in the film.
Oh, yeah, the romance part. After making a stunning entrance by tumbling down the steps into his European Lit class, Paul sits next to Dora Diamond (Suvari), who uses her ice-filled drink to soothe his wounded knee. In genre terms, that’s pretty much it, you know the two of them will be getting together. Unfortunately, it takes another good eighty minutes from that point for it to happen. Did I say “good?” Sorry. I meant unbearable.
What stretches this lackluster pursuit out so long is partly Paul’s annoying suitemates, and partly Dora’s affair with said European Lit professor, Edward Alcott (Kinnear). This is a big, big problem for a couple of reasons. First off, the complications and implications of Alcott’s unethical behavior don’t belong in this kind of movie. Second, there’s this particular sequence where Dora talks to a couple of people about becoming emancipated from her parents so she can get more financial aid, yadda, yadda. Back up, rewind. Though it is never stated directly, only a minor can be emancipated. A minor as in under eighteen. A minor as in… this whole issue belongs in another film. Even more bothersome, there’s one of those really weak “Whatever happened to…?” bits at the end that was probably only put in under studio pressure to show that Alcott got his comeuppance, but it’s still left vague as to which underage co-ed he got nailed for nailing. See, the trouble is, if Dora is seventeen, Paul is eighteen, which throws up an immediate roadblock. There’s even a hint that his suitemates have figured it out, but only a hint and, without the tacked-on ending, there would have been no resolution, no consequences. Worse: much is made of a subplot in which Dora gets a job as an egg donor for a fertility clinic — a job she couldn’t get if she were underage. So which is it? Who knows? Who cares? It’s just one of many examples of how muddled this script is.
It’s just hard to sympathize with people who do stupid things, and the people here exceed all reasonable human stupidity. Yes, the suitemates are supposed to act like this, that’s their function. But Dora’s utter blindness to Alcott’s true feelings about her (she’s just a penile milking machine) knock off the sympathy points real fast. It’s a classic case of smart women doing stupid men. Paul doesn’t fare much better. One manipulation of the plot requires him to turn over his new off-campus digs at an animal hospital (don’t ask) to the suitemates so they can have a party. Chris begs and wheedles and bats his eyes (not really, but he might as well have) and Paul falls for it and, again, my only reaction was, “You big fucking stupid jackass, how can you even talk to these people after they lied right in front of you to get you booted out of Huntz Hall?” When one of the trio runs into Dora at a liquor store (filling out a job application) he quickly talks her into coming by the party (another stupid move) and she winds up dosed with something that causes flashy post-production effects while Paul waits for her at an Everclear concert. Eventually, he finds her unconscious back home and takes her to the hospital and this whole unmotivated, convoluted mess existed just so the doctor could mention that her listed emergency contact is… oh, c’mon. If you’ve got half a brain, you know who.
To distract us from this listless story, Heckerling stuffs the film with the aforementioned big name cameos, and every one of these scenes serves a single purpose: to show off who she was able to cast in bit parts. I’ll save you the trouble of seeing the movie: besides Everclear, we get Dan Aykroyd as Paul’s father, Andy Dick as a prune-gobbling bureaucrat, David Spade as a snide (natch) video store employee and Andrea Martin as a sour business professor. Every one of these scenes is a complete throwaway.
We also get the Broadway cast of Cabaret — meaning, Alan Cumming and Miranda Richardson — during the obligatory “cute” date sequence between Paul and Dora. The problem here is, though they sneak into the show during the intermission, they wind up watching the opening number, Wilkomen. Explain that one. And explain the total loss of time in the middle of the movie. Does Paul and Dora’s relationship grow over a few days or a few months? It seems to be both, but it was impossible to tell. Either way, Suvari and Biggs are a complete mismatch. Given everything the filmmakers set up about country-bumpkin Paul, the last girl he’s going to go for is the larcenous bus and tunnel goth chick who’s stupid enough to bang their professor. No matter how hard they try, the chemistry between them is always pure sibling, no nibbling.
Memo to Jason Biggs: you have all the makings of a star, if you don’t blow it. But, with the dual bombs of Boys & Girls and this fiasco back to back, you could quickly spend all the credit you earned from American Pie. My advice? For your next project, go for a grown-up drama and play totally against type. I know you can do it, and I know you deserve better than to be stuck in films like this very aptly named Loser.
Jon Bastian is a native and resident of Los Angeles. He is a playwright and screenwriter who works in the TV trade to keep his dog rolling in kibble.
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