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Bait and switch Decent: 'Loser' is not the gross-out comedy it's hyped to be

Friday, July 21, 2000

By Ron Weiskind, Post-Gazette Movie Editor

The worst thing about "Loser" may be how the trailer misrepresents it as another gross youth comedy, this year's version of "American Pie" set in college, complete with two of that movie's stars, Jason Biggs and Mena Suvari.


Rating: PG-13; contains vulgar language, sexual situations and substance abuse.

Players: Jason Biggs, Mena Suvari, Greg Kinnear.

Director: Amy Heckerling.

Web site:

Critic's call: 2 1/2 stars.


But the only really eeeewwww! scene in the movie occurs when Paul (Biggs), the designated dweeb of the title, searches for his toothbrush and finds a roommate's condom hanging from it. While the characters are young, they are attending college and more or less living on their own in New York City, where you learn to grow up in a hurry.

Most of all, "Loser" doesn't really qualify as a comedy. Yeah, the trailer contained funny scenes of Biggs doing pratfalls and Suvari tripping all over herself and a discussion of the Backstreet Boys that ends with someone noting that heterosexual males shouldn't know so much about the band.

That last bit doesn't appear in the movie. It turns out that there's nothing funny about the situations in which NYU students Paul and Dora (Suvari) find themselves. For those expecting guffaws, that takes some getting used to.

Paul's a scholarship student from the hinterlands who understands from the start that he's not likely to fit in. Sure enough, his roommates think he's a refugee from "Fargo," not just from the way he dresses but also because he tries to study while they party hearty -- unlike them, he's required to keep his grades up.

Dora's a commuter student who tries to earn her tuition by working as a waitress at a girlie bar. When she misses the train home one night and has no place else to go, she camps out on the floor at Grand Central Station. She doesn't qualify for financial aid but she's too honest to cheat the customers for bigger tips.

Each of them must cope with some rather despicable acquaintances. Paul's roommates -- Adam (Zak Orth), Chris (Thomas Sadoski) and Noah (Jimmi Simpson) -- hate his guts. When they're not drowning themselves in beer and plotting how to blackmail teachers into giving them A's, they're attempting to seduce women by feeding them date-rape drugs.

As for Dora, she's having an affair with professor Edward Alcott (Greg Kinnear, smooth as snake oil), who is as smug as a slug in a hug. His disdain for his students -- and his lover -- is matched only by his regard for himself.

It's hard to decide who is worse, Alcott or the roommates. It's harder to laugh at them. Jack Nicholson could get us to chortle at his misanthropic author in "As Good As It Gets" partly due to his acting skills and partly because the character was such an obvious eccentric. The bad boys in "Loser" may be caricatures, but their behavior is a little too real.

On the other hand, so are Paul and Dora -- and that's the saving grace of "Loser." Many of us can identify with these socially awkward characters who wonder why their basic honesty and kindness make them freaks of a sort and keep them on the outside looking in.

Writer-director Amy Heckerling, whose impressive teen-movie credentials include "Fast Times at Ridgemont High" and "Clueless," says she based the story on her own college experiences. Her empathy for these sweet, hapless kids envelops the film like a mother's love. That just about makes up for the movie's offhand tone, which doesn't quite deliver the payoff we expect even though everyone winds up getting what he deserves.

Biggs is perfect for this kind of role, as he proved in "American Pie." He wears a big, goofy, sincere grin and an earnestness that allows him to be mistaken for a nerd. Maybe he IS a nerd. That's better than being Adam, Chris or Noah.

Suvari displayed a sexy sweetness in "American Pie" and a sexy vulnerability in "American Beauty." Here, she plays down the sexiness in favor of the other two qualities, coming off as a kind of urchin.

Paul and Dora learn the hard way, but they do figure out how to stand up for themselves and each other in the end. By that time, it becomes clear just who the losers really are.

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