*/**** Image B+ Sound A-
starring Jason Biggs, Mena Suvari, Greg Kinnear
written and directed by Amy Heckerling
by Bill Chambers SPOILER WARNING IN EFFECT. As with most of her films, director Amy Heckerling's latest, Loser, seesaws between unpleasant and artificial, and is sometimes both at once. When she tackles big issues, such as abortion in Fast Times at Ridgemont High, it's impossible to tell whether she's being matter-of-fact or glib about them (they carry an almost documentary starkness), but whatever the case, she continually refuses political comment. Such is the sitcom tendency of her work: to jeopardize the innocence of her characters and then hit the reset button. This fear of drama soured me on Fast Times..., Look Who's Talking, Clueless, and now Loser, in which Ms. Heckerling also demonstrates, for the first time, zero affinity for the milieu.
Has anyone, for instance, ever met a girl in the stylistic vein of Mena Suvari's Dora? Attired in black thrift, her eye shadow smeared to raccoon chic and her red bangs barely contained by girlish clips, she accepts the label of goth, but no self-respecting goth girl ever admitted to digging, as Dora does, those geriatric rockers Everclear, nor willingly went anywhere with a six-pack-wielding fratboy stranger. The mechanics of Loser's tired old introvert-boy-falls-for-extrovert-girl plot drive its protagonists into cultural non-specificity, so that they become even less than stereotypes. They become paper dolls.
Small-town transplant Paul (a strangely static Jason Biggs), our eponymous hero, always wears his woolly hunter's cap with flaps covering the ears, and beneath it rests a parted mop-top that couldn't scream "Shemp" louder. (There are losers, and then there are self-saboteurs.) He has three smug-looking roommates (the one-dimensional trio is not supposed to be brothers, but they share similar facial features, including and especially curly Joker mouths), and their fashion sense is incomprehensibly glam. They're not transvestites, though Heckerling seems to be equating flamboyance with villainy (how Celluloid Closet of her). Anyway, they conspire to evict Paul and regularly molest women whose drinks they've spiked. Dora ignorantly downs one of their date-rape potions; for better or worse, either Heckerling or the studio is too cowardly to admit if she was subsequently violated.
When Paul rescues Dora from her drugging, he learns that she's dating their unctuous European lit professor Edward Alcott (a superb Greg Kinnear). Although Paul, Shemp that he is, is already in love with Dora by this point, he gets altruistic and pretends the flowers he bought her are actually from Alcott. She's thrilled, but nevertheless spends a few days at Paul's to recuperate, The Apartment-style; the two bond over emergency kitten surgery and a Broadway play (Cabaret), and just when Paul's got it in his head that she's starting to love him back in that non-friendly way, she decides to become Alcott's live-in girlfriend. Cue precious homage to The Graduate, shots of Paul drifting around Berkeley--er... (The use of Simon & Garfunkel's "Scarborough Fair" here is such a direct quotation it feels like copyright infringement.)
Heckerling has a lot in common with Nora "You've Got Mail" Ephron, the only other prominent female directing comedies today, in that neither has any use for strong-willed women. Men continue to trod on Dora until the bitter end (in the final scene, she gives Paul a big smooch after he blurts out his feelings in what amounts to not so much a confession as a creepy ultimatum), and she sloughs off being drugged against her will--mere hours after Paul hints to her that she was poisoned, and by people in the vicinity, Dora's cheerily redecorating his apartment. Heckerling is so laissez-faire about the issue in general that she reserves the comeuppance of the would-be rapists for a jokey epilogue post-script.
Goth veneer aside, there are an awful lot of girls out there who behave as erratically as Dora, and enough angry young dude filmmakers to make movies about mistreating them. Heckerling misses her shot at having Dora truly turn herself around and reject codependence, and while telling that story may not be Heckerling's social responsibility, it is a lost opportunity all the same, especially given that the film is otherwise bereft of women. (Maybe Paul isn't the title character.) A friend wondered if I took Loser too seriously; perhaps he should wonder if Heckerling took it seriously enough.
Loser is available on DVD from Columbia TriStar Home Video. It's a single-platter release containing both 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen and unmatted options. The image on each is pleasing, although the print used for this transfer is surprisingly dinged-up in spots. Colours tip towards the orange end of the scale, bringing imperative warmth to the film's hostile hijinks. Edge-enhancement is under control. The Dolby Digital 5.1 audio is very basic; it's nifty hearing the aforementioned S&G tune in six-track, even if it's not quite expansive, and the Everclear concert has deep impact--the band themselves excepted. Bonus material is sparse: Wheaton's video for "Teenage Dirtbag"; Talent Files; trailers for Loser, As Good as it Gets, Can't Hardly Wait, and Whatever It Takes; a skimpy (and unadvertised) making-of featurette; and Production Notes (plus a case insert of same). Note: the end-titles mentioned above are presented as player-generated yellow subtitles as opposed to an optical burn-in. Looks like this MGM practice is catching on.
92 minutes; PG-13; 1.85:1 (16x9-enhanced), 1.33:1; English DD 5.1, English Dolby Surround, French DD 2.0 (Mono), Spanish DD 2.0 (Mono), Portuguese DD 2.0 (Mono); English, French, Spanish, Portuguese, Chinese, Korean, Thai subtitles; DVD-9; Region One; Columbia TriStar