Even in the midst of the teen movie overload that has threatened to turn the local multiplex into high school with popcorn, there was reason to hold out hope for Loser. After all, writer/director Amy Heckerling has successfully mined this territory twice before. Though her Fast Times at Ridgemont High came out in 1982, the year most of this year’s graduating class was born, it remains the template for the high school movie genre. Sean Penn’s Spicoli alone has spawned enough stoner spinoffs to smoke an acre of cannabis, and other Fast Times archetypes from the Nerd to the Virgin continue to populate the halls of Hollywood highs. In 1995, after directing a couple of talking baby movies in the interim, Heckerling returned with Clueless, an update of Jane Austen’s Emma set in Beverly Hills 90210 territory, and spun this unpromising concept into comic gold. Her inner teen must have deserted her this time around, though; Loser is a limp, uninspired downer, as mirthless and moralizing as they come.
Though it would be convenient to refer to Loser as the third in Heckerling’s high school trilogy, it unfortunately wouldn’t be accurate, as here she advances her characters’ ages by a few months, making them freshmen in college. Jason Biggs stars as Paul Tannek, the titular loser. He’s a kid from the sticks on his own for the first time at a New York City university. His three roommates are rich party boys who see the studious, nerdy Paul as a nuisance to overcome. They conspire to have him ejected from the dorm, and Paul – who’s had enough of loud music all day and night and waterbeds leaking onto his head while he tries to sleep – goes willingly. The only available housing left is a room in the school’s veterinary clinic (a head-scratching development that plays like it must have emerged from some script conference with a studio exec eager to contribute "an idea").
Meanwhile, Paul has developed a crush on classmate Dora Diamond (who is played not by Gloria Swanson, but by American Beauty‘s Mena Suvari), unaware that she is having an affair with their professor, Edward Alcott (Greg Kinnear). Like Paul, Dora is a misfit; she comes from a broken home and has no money, and she wears gobs of black eyeliner, just like Ally Sheedy in The Breakfast Club. After Dora gets dosed with the date rape drug by one of Paul’s ex-roomies, Paul nurses her back to health. But despite the affection blossoming between them, Paul backs off when he learns of her involvement with Alcott. The question of whether Dora will end up with her standoffish professor or this saintly outcast has all the suspense of a shopping list.
Loser has a rushed, half-completed feel and looks like it was done on the cheap (at one point, Paul attends an Everclear concert that appears to take place inside a VFW hall). That wouldn’t matter so much if Heckerling had a compelling story to tell, but judging from the results, the well of inspiration was bone-dry. Shades of grey are at a premium; having established a wholly virtuous, babe-in-the-woods protagonist, Heckerling pits him against cartoonishly villainous straw men. Paul’s three roommates are thoroughly vile hedonists, and Greg Kinnear adds yet another insufferably smarmy jerk to his resume with his performance as Professor Alcott. The result is a foregone conclusion of a movie, with a message that might as well have been delivered in sky-writing: Paul’s not a loser – everybody else is.
Heckerling seems to know she hasn’t got much going on here, so she stacks the movie with pointless celebrity cameos. Dan Aykroyd plays Paul’s father, Andy Dick is a snotty city clerk, and Steven Wright shows up as a customer in a strip bar where Dora briefly works. David Spade literally looks as if he’s been pulled off the set of a movie shooting across the street, but his brief appearance does generate a couple of Loser‘s very few laughs. But the most shamefully wasted talent here is that of the two appealing leads, Biggs and Suvari. They make a charming couple in the few scenes they’re allowed together. A montage in which Dora takes Paul on a free date in New York City, stealing coffee refills in the park and sneaking into a Broadway play, hints at the much better romantic comedy these two deserve. Most of the time, though, Loser is too cramped and mean-spirited to allow them room to breathe. Now that’s clueless.