Loser is a highly ambitious teen movie. Writer-director Amy Heckerling (Fast Times at Ridgemont High, 1982) has always kept a canny eye on the popular market, but here she deliberately defies expectations, making what amounts to an anti-Clueless (1995).
Although Loser starts out with the usual teen pratfalls, highlighting the plight of country boy, Paul (Jason Biggs), in the big bad city of New York, it evolves into a more dramatic, sometimes excruciating tale of humiliation and misconnection.
With more than a nod to Billy Wilder's The Apartment (1960), the plot engineers a triangle between Paul, his fellow university student, Dora (Mena Suvari) and their literature teacher, Alcott (Greg Kinnear) – a man whose curriculum is so anachronistic he makes Sam Neill in My Mother Frank (2000) seem positively postmodern.
While Paul watches on in hopeless melancholy, Dora is preyed upon by most men – not only the cagey Paul, but also a gang of vacuous thrillseekers led by Adam (Zak Orth). The centre of the film is a series of quite touching scenes involving Paul's attempts to save Dora from others and herself.
Like a Wilder movie, Loser is designed to veer from slapstick to drama and finally end up as romantic comedy. Sadly, very little in this strange film achieves its desired effect.
Dora remains a somewhat dopey abstraction from start to end, and all plot moves involving her are unconvincing. The Woody Allen-style attempt at eulogising New York (set to "The Best Things in Life are Free") is perfunctory. What Heckerling is best at – the comedy of teen manners, the observation of fads and fashions – only intermittently takes command.
The biggest problem with Loser is that, while its tone and genre change throughout, most of its characters never do. All the one-dimensional baddies of the piece quickly become tiresome. Only Biggs, in a remarkably understated and nuanced performance, holds the disparate emotions of the piece together.
Heckerling, for her part, vacillates fatally between making bold moves and playing it safe. When will she make another film as inspired as Clueless?
© Adrian Martin August 2000