Loser (United States, 2000)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

Calling a motion picture Loser is a brave move because it places the film in a precarious position if the critical reaction is less enthusiastic than the producers expect. In this case, however, that's not an issue; this movie succeeds in a modest-yet-satisfying way. In fact, it's one of the summer of 2000's few pleasant surprises. The writer/director/co-producer is Amy Heckerling, a woman who, at age 45, still has her hand on the pulse of men and women less than half her age. With Loser, Heckerling has graduated from high school (where two of her previous outings, Fast Times at Ridgemont High and Clueless, were set), but the qualities that make her characters appealing have not been lost in the process.

Loser is a straightforward romantic comedy where the relationship between two unlikely friends develops into something deeper than a casual acquaintanceship. The film's romantic complications are restrained - they neither stretch the viewer's credulity nor make the characters seem airheaded, vindictive, or blind. Most importantly, the protagonists - a geek's geek named Paul (Jason Biggs) and a gothic grunge girl named Dora (Mena Suvari) - are presented as real people with genuine problems. These two seem less like the product of a writer's invention than the type of individuals one meets on a college campus. Of course, there are limits to the level of verisimilitude that can be employed, since a truly satisfying ending requires a heavy dollop of fantasy.

Paul is a hopeless loser, but he's also the nicest guy attending a prestigious New York City university. He won't accept money from his grandfather, is nice to his little sister, and willingly hangs out with his dad (a cameo appearance by Dan Aykroyd). However, in a city populated by cynics, he is viewed as a living caricature. His three party-animal roommates (played by Thomas Sadoski, Zak Orth, and Jimmi Simpson) find his presence so restricting that they have him kicked out of the dorm. The school relocates him to a small room in a local veterinary clinic. Meanwhile, Dora is trying to balance her financial difficulties with her studies and a torrid affair she's having with her European Lit professor, Edward Alcott (Greg Kinnear). She works nights as a waitress at a topless bar, but her commute is running her down. One night at a party held by Paul's ex-roommates in the veterinary clinic, someone slips something into her juice, and she wakes up in Paul's care.

As Paul, Jason Biggs has slipped into the same kind of role that brought him recognition in American Pie. Based on the evidence, one can assume he has been typecast, but he understands this part - his on-screen persona is likable and easy to relate to. Biggs effectively conveys the spectrum of emotions Paul endures as his relationship with Dora develops - tenderness, hope, excitement, disappointment, jealousy, and loss. It's a cycle almost everyone is familiar with, and Biggs allows us to re-live it here. Meanwhile, Mena Suvari plays a less troubled character than she did in American Beauty, but someone without the idealism of American Pie's choir girl, Heather. Like other Heckerling female leads (Jennifer Jason Leigh in Fast Times and Alicia Silverstone in Clueless), Suvari exhibits star quality. She's smart and sassy, and evolves a palpable chemistry with Biggs.

Romantic comedies, especially those set in high schools and colleges, have suffered from overexposure in the past few years. Most have been cliché-riddled pabulum - endless, thinly-veiled reworkings of Pygmalion and The Taming of the Shrew. The danger is that Loser will suffer from guilt by association at the box office. That would be a shame, because Heckerling's movie is smarter and breezier than anything that has recently traveled this well-trodden path. While Loser never quite breaks free of the romantic comedy envelope, it occasionally tests the boundaries. With one exception, the film earns its laughs without turning its characters into buffoons or endangering their dignity. And it's a pleasure to watch a movie in which the protagonists speak and act like individuals who have more on their minds than who they're going to take to the big dance (a plot device that is thankfully absent in Loser). Academic and financial issues rank as highly on Paul and Dora's list of priorities as finding the right mate.

Loser is guaranteed to appeal to anyone who has liked the umpteen recent late teens/early twenties romantic comedies, but the film also has qualities that could attract a wider audience. Despite the presence of American Pie alums Biggs and Suvari, this is not an excursion into crude, lewd humor and madcap sexcapades. Both the sexual content and the profanity are limited; Heckerling expects the characters to carry Loser, which they do. And that's an all-too-rare statement to make about any Hollywood-based production these days. Loser bucks the summer trend, proving that a little light romance is an appealing antidote to an overdose of testosterone and adrenaline.

Loser (United States, 2000)

Director: Amy Heckerling
Cast: Jason Biggs, Mena Suvari, Greg Kinnear, Thomas Sadoski, Zak Orth, Jimmi Simpson
Screenplay: Amy Heckerling
Cinematography: Rob Hahn
Music: David Kitay
U.S. Distributor: Columbia Pictures
Run Time: 1:35
U.S. Release Date: 2000-07-21
MPAA Rating: "PG-13" (Sexual Situations, Drugs, Profanity)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1