Slow Times at NYU
With Fast Times at Ridgemont High, Amy Heckerling ushered in the ‘80s with a not-so-realistic tale of surfer stoners and mall teens. A decade later, she wrote and directed the ultimate pop movie of the ‘90s, Clueless. As smart as it was sassy, Clueless presented a heroine who epitomized (and lectured upon) the state of brand-name obsession, societal values, and pop culture awareness. With Loser, Heckerling faces the challenge of measuring up to past success in a decade that doesn’t even have its own colloquialism. If in no other way but numerically, Loser functions as a reflection of the ‘00s. Loser presents a standard fish-out-of-water story, with a Midwestern bumpkin Paul Jason Biggs, American Pie‘s pastry fucker) moving to New York for college at NYU, which remains unnamed but clearly implied. Presumably, misadventures would ensure, but it seems all those good ideas were used up in the original Out-of-Towners. Instead, Paul is simply a sweet fella who’s so utterly dull and naïve that he actually spends his freshman year studying instead of drinking. At one point, he even wears a Sarah Maclachlan T-shirt. In his European Lit class, Paul meets Dora (Mena Suvari, American Beauty‘s teen tease) after falling down the stairs in the lecture hall. Considerate gal that she is, she soothes his wounded knee with her iced mocha from Starbuck’s. It’s like meeting cute, except without the cuteness. Predictably, he “falls” for her but she doesn’t notice because she’s busy having an affair with the pompous, unappreciative professor (Greg Kinnear, as unnecessary here as in everything else). Paul’s homelife fares no better; he has such horrible roommates that they get him kicked out of dorm room (one of those mystical movie dorm rooms with colored walls and multiple rooms at that) and reassigned to live at a veterinary clinic. There he sleeps in a spare room and spends nights medicating homeless pets without any sort of training you know, the kind of thing that’s standard practice at major universities with housing shortages. Not to mention the biggest suspension of disbelief, which is that there appear to be no gay students at NYU or any of the film, theater, and dance majors that make the school famous. That Loser takes liberties of credibility is forgivable. Fast Times, Clueless, and even Look Who’s Talking took place in a fantasy world rather than in real life, but they also managed to capture the delicate balance between youthful whimsy and growing pains. With Loser, nothing remotely insightful is presented, and the broad strokes with which the characters are written are not only sloppy, they’re insulting. As a kid from South Dakota who started college at NYU, I know from experience that no small town native who chooses to move to New York is as big a nimrod as Paul is. From the opening scene, featuring Dan Aykroyd as Paul’s dad (was that necessary?), to the climactic kiss between Dora and Paul, Loser misses basically every opportunity to seem relevant or fresh. Even the soundtrack is behind the times, featuring last year’s hits. How ‘99. Never rising above the material, Biggs does little with a bummer of a role. The romance seems equally deflated the sexual tension between Biggs and Suvari is nearly as intangible as that between Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan in You’ve Got Mail. And despite the fact that the film was shot on location, Loser manages to make New York look dull. Drearily unfunny, Loser may not be as cringe-worthy as the worst films out there this summer, but it’s a bland disappointment. That is, until the inane “here’s what happened next” title cards used during misguided epilogue, which is as ridiculously awful as Heckerling’s all-time low, National Lampoon’s European Vacation. One Loser review bemoaned that Heckerling has become cynical. Frankly, it’s more distressing that she’s become out-of-touch and boring.