Film Reviews

Nerd in a Punch Bowl

Only in the movies could a kid who looks and acts like Jason Biggs be called a loser. Let's see: charming conversationalist, big smile, washboard abs? Oh yeah, those'll make a guy unpopular, for sure. About the only thing that's surprising about Biggs' character in Loser is that the filmmakers didn't stoop to the old trick of putting him in glasses and hair grease to designate him as a nerd. He gets moderately cool hair. However, they gave him a big dorky hat to compensate. Ah, progress.

But wait! There's hope for this movie yet! Writer-director Amy Heckerling had previously performed the miraculous feat of directing two teen movies that came to define their respective decades: Fast Times at Ridgemont High in the '80s and Clueless in the '90s. Sure, in between those gigs she directed the mediocre so-called comedies National Lampoon's European Vacation, Look Who's Talking and Look Who's Talking Too (she apparently drew the line at Look Who's Talking Now), but maybe she just couldn't deal with narcissistic '70s survivors John Travolta and Chevy Chase. Back at the helm of a movie about youngsters, perhaps she could once again tap into the zeitgeist, especially with officially designated Next Big Things Biggs and Mena Suvari.

Alas, it was not to be.

Which is not to say that Loser is what its title might indicate. Suvari and Biggs have charm to burn, and they continue to indicate that they're likely to have great futures ahead. They're just not given much to work with. Heckerling, who also scripted, pushes her luck a little too far in trying to be hip for a third decade: cell phones, TV sitcom-based drinking games, Ron Popeil's hair-in-a-can and references to Dr. Drew, Monty Python and Axl Rose are, like, so five years ago (or more), and a cameo by Everclear isn't exactly cutting-edge (front man Art Alexakis already turned in a superior cameo in this year's Committed).

Perhaps it's unfair to expect so much from Heckerling, but because she did insist on setting such high standards for herself with Fast Times and Clueless, people will have high hopes, and Heckerling doesn't help her case by forcing comparisons with The Graduate in a key scene. Even the soundtrack, featuring Everclear, Foo Fighters (contractually obliged to appear on every soundtrack that ever comes out, apparently) and Michael Penn's early '90s hit "No Myth," feels shopworn. You'd think Sony could have at least sprung for the rights to the Beck song bearing the film's title.

Even setting the hipness factor aside, however, Loser's script is frustratingly inconsistent. As Paul, a naive country boy from some unspecified rural region who is shipped off to college in New York, Biggs is forced to alternate between displays of serious intelligence and incredible wide-eyed stupidity and clumsiness. This is a kid who's quite painfully aware that the Sears pseudo-hip-hop pants with "pre-hoisted up" boxers that his mom bought him are lame, yet he wears equally awful clothes by choice and wonders why people think he looks like a geek. Suvari's Dora is somewhat more consistent, flaunting a strange combination of street smarts and bubbly naiveté, but we never do find out exactly why she won't tell her mother that she's homeless. Nor is there a point to her being homeless, save for forcing her to eventually choose which man she'd like to run to for shelter: Paul, or her current lover, an English professor played by Greg Kinnear (Suvari loves those older guys!). Kinnear seems to be having a ball parodying the cocky caricature that he used to be back in his talk show days, silencing his young lover with smarmy put-downs like, "If I wanted all this teen angst, I'd watch reruns of My So-Called Life."

And Paul's unpleasant roommates (Zak Orth, Tom Sadoski and Jimmi Simpson, the last two being cinematic newcomers) are funny and have a great look, but they're not given any depth, just bizarre neon and vinyl outfits that are supposed to make them look spoiled but serve instead to make them look gay. A scene excised from the final cut (but a key part of the trailer), in which the three of them discuss the Backstreet Boys, even hinted at this possible subtext, but that might have been too close to depth for comfort, since we're so obviously supposed to find nothing sympathetic or understandable about them whatsoever. There are also a few well-known comedians in key cameos, but Heckerling wastes them by giving them nothing funny to say or do. That is, unless Andy Dick choking on a prune is your idea of hilarity, in which case, have at it.

But the movie's not a complete waste. It's impossible to totally dislike any movie that gives us young would-be lovers bonding over impromptu surgery on a nearly stillborn kitten. And during one party scene, in which Dora has had too much to drink, camera tricks create what is honestly the best subjective depiction of drunkenness possibly ever put onscreen. A couple of key details are dead-on, like Mountain Dew as the drink of choice for college kids. But Biggs himself sums up the general tone of the piece very early on, when describing what he imagines New Yorkers will be like: "They're all real sophisticated -- you've seen that Seinfeld show." If Seinfeld is, in fact, too sophisticated for you, then Loser may blow you away. Otherwise, it's just another teen flick that only slightly stands out.

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Luke Y. Thompson