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LOSER

Review by Michael Jacobson

Stars:  Jason Biggs, Mena Suvari, Greg Kinnear
Director:  Amy Heckerling
Audio:  Dolby Digital 5.1, Dolby Surround
Video:  Widescreen 1.85:1 Anamorphic Transfer, Standard 1.33:1
Studio:  Columbia Tri Star
Features:  Music video, four trailers, talent files, production notes, featurette
Length:  95 Minutes
Release Date:  December 19, 2000

Film **1/2

When I notice a new teen comedy directed by Amy Heckerling, I tend to be drawn to it, even if initial critical response is bad.  After all, this is the woman who made two genuine classics of the genre:  Fast Times at Ridgemont High, perhaps the smartest of all said films, and Clueless, one of the funniest and most unique takes on life in the cliques.  Unfortunately, without a brilliant screenplay and novel by Cameron Crowe or the influence of Jane Austen, Loser doesn’t quite measure up.

This is a film with two of the most appealing characters I’ve come across in the field of teen comedies, who also happen to be portrayed by two of my favorite young actors.  Paul (Biggs) is the loser of the title character, so called because he happens to be shy, sweet, and decent amongst a sea of beer swilling party animals at his new college.  Dora (Suvari) is a smart girl who constantly makes stupid decisions, from the jobs she takes to the people she associates with, including having an ill-advised affair with her English professor, Edward (Kinnear).

I can’t quite resist the temptation to count clichés, so here goes (see how many of them you recognize): 1.   A smart but awkward outcast from a small town arrives at a big city school, where he doesn’t fit in.  2.  He falls in love with an obviously ‘wild girl’.  3.  The girl is involved with a guy whom everybody and their grandmother, including the audience, knows is all wrong for her.  4.  Eventually, chance throws them together in a situation where he can help her out.  5.  The other guy, whom she’s seeing, will get credit for the good deed, up until the movie decides it’s time to resolve that little complication.  6.  The guy and girl live happily ever after.

In the middle of all this recycled material, though, are some truly wonderful scenes between Paul and Dora, that are funny, touching, and often hit the target squarely.  Both Jason Biggs and Mena Suvari manage to bring much more to their roles than are actually there, and both make their characters strong and appealing.  I liked them so much, in fact, that I wanted to take them out of this film and put them in a better one.  They deserved to exist in a world where the boundaries didn’t seem so scripted and formulistic.  Given room to grow and breathe, who knows where these two might have gone?

I’ve seen my share of the kinds of films where the fresh young outsider becomes the easy target and outcast, and can’t say I’ve liked them much.  I’ve really only seen one film portray it accurately and completely, and that was Welcome to the Dollhouse.  This film tries that same approach, but don’t be surprised if you end up a little resentful because of it.  Paul is way too likable for us to just sit and suffer his indignities quietly.  It doesn’t help that the ones who call him “loser” are actually some of the most despicable tormentors ever depicted in this kind of film.  They don’t merely belittle the antagonist.  They commit other misdeeds like throwing parties where they use date rape drugs on their unsuspecting girls.  And Paul is supposed to be the “loser”.  Is Heckerling making an ironic statement?  Very possibly, but she may have neglected to fully develop it in lieu of bringing all the old clichés to life.

But still, there is a sweet kind of chemistry between Paul and Dora that I warmed to…though I credit the performers more for that feat.  Jason Biggs brings a real warmth, spirit, and vulnerability to Paul…he’s probably the most realistic aspect of the whole film.  And Mena Suvari, who co-starred with him in American Pie, shows a very different side from her American Beauty nymphet.  Her Dora is more desperate, more confused, and more in dire need of a guy like Paul.  And, being an English major, I have to add:  Greg Kinnear gives a dead-on accurate portrayal of a professor.  As someone who’s sat through classes on Kafka like these kids have to do…well, let’s just say I had a few flashbacks.

Loser isn’t quite the worst you can do for an evening home with the DVD player…parts of it are genuinely winning.  You just won’t be able to shake the feeling that you’ve seen most of it before.  And done better.

Video ***1/2

This is another quality offering from Columbia Tri Star.  I only watched the anamorphic widescreen version, and I found it to be a generally superb transfer, with strong, excellent coloring from beginning to end.  Images were crisply rendered, with good detail, and the color palate was wide and generous.  There were a couple of slightly darker scenes where the colors went slightly unnatural, with a slight bit of softness, but these are hardly a distraction…barely worth mentioning.  Other scenes, like the party in the animal hospital, boast extreme lighting and color compositions, and they render quite beautifully.

Audio ***

One of the most prominent aspects of an Amy Heckerling film is the music, and Loser boasts a terrific collection of mood-enhancing songs that sound great in 5.1.  There’s only minor instances of real discretion used to differentiate front and back stages, but for the most part, the multi-channel sound is just used to open up the listening experience and give it ambience.  The dialogue is sharp and clear throughout, but this is the kind of film where the audio lives and dies by the music.  The songs give the track its dynamics, depth and bottom end.

Features **

The disc contains trailers for this movie plus three others (As Good as it Gets, Can’t Hardly Wait, Whatever it Takes), plus a music video for “Teenage Dirtbag” by Wheatus, talent files and a very short production featurette (unlisted on the box), plus a booklet with some production notes.  By the way, definitely check out the trailer for this film...one of the funniest moments apparently ended up on the cutting room floor.  It involves a discussion of the Backstreet Boys.  I will say no more.

Summary:

To watch Loser is to see two terrific and likable characters trapped in teen comedy cliché hell…all that was really missing was a bet to see who could lose their virginity first to take it all the way.  It’s another good disc from Columbia Tri Star, though, and if you can get past the feelings of déjà vu all over again, you can enjoy this film’s warmer moments.