I tried very hard to like Loser, the latest from Amy Heckerling of Clueless fame. And, indeed, there is much to like about it. Its hero, Paul Tannek (Jason Biggs) is a poor but likeable guy from a poor but likeable rural family who goes to college in the big city (a thinly disguised New York University) where he is rapidly branded a hick, a square and a loser, by his rich, amoral, druggie roommates, Chris (Thomas Sadoski), Adam (Zak Orth) and Noah (Jimmi Simpson). The trouble is, he’s much too likeable. There may be, for all I know, three NYU students nearly as loathsome as Chris, Adam and Noah, but what are the odds that they’d all be rooming together? At any rate, I feel sure that there cannot be so many such slimeballs that a guy like Paul could not have made other friends who would not have considered him a loser at all.
For the sad fact is that, all too often, the kids that other kids mock as “losers” really are losers—at least temporarily so—in that they are stupid, gauche, annoying and unattractive. Paul dresses funny and takes a few pratfalls, but he is obviously none of these things. Nor is the prospect of true love with Dora (Mena Suvari), an equally poor, equally likeable girl who is having an affair with her professor (Greg Kinnear), nearly as surprising as it ought to be if the film were to live up to its name. Moreover, in order to uphold the fiction of their comradeship in outsiderdom, Ms Heckerling is forced to sketch both characters in so lightly that they almost disappear.
Dan Aykroyd, for instance, appears in what amounts to a marvelous cameo as Paul’s father, but he is quickly whisked off the stage, lest we should find yet another reason to like Paul too much, too soon. Dora’s mother, most curiously, is so concerned about her that when Dora tells her (falsely) that she is sleeping over with a friend in a dormitory instead of catching the last train home to the suburbs, she calls back immediately to ask about the security arrangements at the dormitory. Yet we find that, when she is rushed to the hospital to have her stomach pumped after taking a date-rape drug, Dora has not even listed her as next of kin. Nor does mom even call to find out where she is when she is forced to convalesce for several days at Paul’s place, or know or care when Dora moves in with the professor.
These flaws finally spoil the movie, which is reduced to little more than its message and a few good lines. Dora says of her favorite pop group, for example, that “I love self-loathing complaint rock you can dance to.” But, though badly conveyed, the message is a good one, namely that being poor and honest is better than being rich and loutish. It’s a charmingly old-fashioned idea and one is of course glad, in a general sort of way, that somebody is still making movies with this as their theme. It is also interesting that the film includes, and brings up again over the closing credits, that great anthem of the Great Depression, “The Best Things in Life are Free.” Perhaps it is a lesson we are as much in need of learning in the flush times of the post Cold War as we were in the lean times of the Depression.