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Remedial Class for Losers



Loser (PG-13)
Columbia Pictures

Teen exploitation writer/director Amy Heckerling (Fast Times at Ridgemont High, Clueless) loses her knack for satisfying slang comedy by taking her college-aged characters way too seriously, and not far enough out in Loser.

Paul (Jason Biggs, American Pie) and Dora (Mena Suvari, American Beauty) are impoverished NYU students trying to pass their classes, avoid evil classmates, and have a relationship with each other -- in spite of the fact that Dora is dating their 34-year-old English lit professor Edward Alcott (Greg Kinnear). Heckerling makes the Manhattan locations look great, but New York always looks cool on the big screen. The paper-thin plot is as lame as its ill-fated attempts at up-to-the-minute teen humor. If you've ever seen some pathetic kid stick their hand to their forehead in the shape of an "L," you'll know where Heckerling got the title for her self-fulfilling loser of a movie.

As the film's title suggests, its characters never aspire to anything above subsistence survival. Supposedly college is the perfect breeding ground for this kind of behavior. Paul's sadistic rich-kid roommates -- Chris (Thomas Sadoski), Adam (Zak Orth) and Noah (Jimmi Simpson) -- dress like Gautier reject/fashion disaster clowns. Blackmailing teachers for good grades, drugging girls to have sex, and humiliating anyone they can get a leg up on are the ways that their parents' money gets spent in the interest of higher learning. Most distracting is Jimmi Simpson's third-rate attempts at imitating Jack Nicholson. It's as if Simpson has watched nothing but Christian Slater movies in order to get every nuance of Slater's Nicholson-inflected vocal delivery and eyebrow raising joker smile. If Simpson were Slater's younger brother he might at least have an excuse for such an obvious attempt at disguising his lack of talent.

By the time Paul's roommates have him evicted from their dorm room based on false accusations of racial slurs and disregard for cleanliness, it's clear that Paul is a dog-for-the-kicking. Dora, on the other hand, is an equal brand of masochist as her tawdry relations with her lit teacher reflect. The theme seems to be that there are good and bad losers, so only the good losers deserve rewards like love (LUV). Heckerling has always mocked the teen characters she writes. Clueless became hugely popular because adults could appreciate the glee with which Heckerling raked her unknowing victims over the coals. Fast Times at Ridgemont High worked on a deeper level because Sean Penn's Jeff Spicoli was an embodiment of southern Californian teen disenfranchisement that rivaled the knowing dumbness of songs by East Coast punk bands like The Ramones or The Dead Boys. Spicoli was a punk. He knew important stuff but he refused to let on because it was never going to serve his purpose. And that's the difference between Fast Times and Loser -- Spicoli had a purpose, and an attitude and stance to preserve it; Loser's characters have very little subtext going on in their wee brains.

The only immaculately satisfying sequence in Loser involves shots of Dora running around New York looking for a job to the musical blessing of Elvis Costello's "Welcome to the Working Week." The first cut from Elvis's debut album (My Aim Is True) reveals an eighteen-year-old Elvis consumed by the rigmarole of a 40-hour-a-week work grind, but still conscious enough to throw out reality-checking barbs at society's haves and have-nots. If only Hecklering could have done the same with Loser, the movie might have been worth seeing.

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