Being rich has hardly ever been a good thing in the movies. Wealthy characters tend to be the villainous ones: insensitive and short-sighted, ungenerous and fatuous, more concerned with their designer labels than with sending canned goods to earthquake victims. This isn’t to say that poor characters don’t aspire to be flush, but the moral ground usually belongs to those who are visibly working for their rewards. This way, the reasoning seems to go since way back at the creation of movies as an entertainment for the masses viewers can identify with people they see on screen, even while knowing that, for instance, Meg Ryan or Jim Carrey make millions of dollars per picture. This is not a uniquely U.S. phenomenon, this simultaneous lust for and distrust of money, but it is pretty well-established in Hollywood, ironically and predictably, one of the more affluent areas on the planet.
And so it was just a little refreshing when, in 1995, Amy Heckerling updated one of Jane Austen’s several class-system-dissections, Emma, into Clueless, a delightfully self-conscious film that not only poked fun, but also poked fun at the upper class but also acknowledged their vulnerabilities, aspirations and quirks, in a word, their “humanity.” But while Clueless certainly showed quick and generous wit regarding perennial class anxiety, its greater achievement may have been its respectful treatment of high schoolers: this isn’t something you see every day. You may recall that reviewers especially compared Heckerling’s romantic comedy favorably to Larry Clark’s controversial Kids, which was released around the same time and also focused on young people. The protagonists in Kids are not nice or cute, and their pathologies sexual promiscuity, drugs, violence, petty crimes are attributed in the movie to their low class, a combination of poverty and poor parenting. Meanwhile, the kids in Clueless appear to be virtuous in spite of their class identities. Rather than being shallow and evil, like, say, the country club lollers in Mary Lambert’s The In Crowd, Cher and Dionne are really good girls, with a comically inept sense of themselves in relation to the rest of their world, which, as it happens, doesn’t include many homeless people. Or, for that matter, non-millionaires.
Amy Heckerling says of her new movie, Loser, that it focuses on a class experience closer to her own experience, in that its protagonists are a couple of working class college students trying to live in Manhattan. Paul (Jason Biggs) is a Midwestern boy through and through: he wears a winter cap with earflaps and plaid shirts that match his dad’s (Dan Aykroyd). It’s a big thrill for the family when, as the film opens, he is accepted to NYU. He’s naive and trusting, and takes to heart his dad’s advice that the “secret of making friends” is this: “Interested is interesting.” Such detail translates, in movie shorthand, to Paul’s overwhelming goodness. And at the peculiarly white, all-straight sameness that comprises this film’s idiosyncratic version of the NYU campus, Paul’s goodness which is, by movie magic, a function of his class becomes his identity, made visible in his hokey clothing, pleasantness, and dedication to his studies.
Needless to say, he runs into a series of obstacles and, at last, true love in the Big City. The former is embodied by his moneyed and morally impaired roommates, Chris (Thomas Sadoski), Noah (Jimmi Simpson), and Adam (Zak Orth), who torture Paul for not studying. The love interest is Dora (Mena Suvari), identified as such because she wears adorable clothes (torn fishnets, short skirts, and layered sweaters, a wardrobe that she ostensibly keeps in her backpack: um, as if!), puts ice on Paul’s knee when he falls down the lecture hall stairs, and is the only girl in the film with a speaking part. Complications ensue when it turns out that Dora, who is working nights at strip bar (where she only serves drinks!) and is plainly very bright, is sleeping with her supercilious literature professor, Edward Alcott (typecast Greg Kinnear). It’s immediately clear, then, that Paul and Dora could both use a little emotional sustenance and that they are the perfect people to provide it for one another. It goes without saying that adults are invisible and/or useless, save for Paul’s dad, who supplies the aforementioned aphorism and one crucially supportive phone call, in which he sagely observes from afar that Paul really likes this girl.
Despite Dad’s insight, Paul and Dora’s relationship is slow to gel, and must be helped along by a gimmick that writer-director Heckerling borrows from Billy Wilder’s The Apartment: shared space and a guy so chivalrous that he supports the girl’s obviously misplaced affection for an asshole, so that she’ll be happy. Paul’s trio of roommates are deemed, en masse, Paul’s moral/class foils: they are shown repeatedly frittering away their time and planning ways to “hit on girls who are unconscious.” You see them at salons, where they tan (badly), get their hair dyed, and have their fingernails painted fashionably (as opposed to politically) black. When they have Paul officially removed from their wannabe den of iniquity, he’s reassigned to a veterinarian’s office, where he sleeps and cleans the cages. It’s here that he nurses the newly jobless and homeless Dora to health after she has been slipped a rophynal by one of his increasingly sinister now ex-roommates.
Being surrounded by kitties and doggies (with whatever presumably accompanying odors left unremarked) affords the couple several chances to bond over charming pet tricks (including the most daring and successful, when they must cut a newborn kitten out of its membrane, potentially very yucky and yet, strangely winning). Most painfully, they must do all of this under a curiously outdated soundtrack, with songs by Elvis Costello and KC and the Sunshine Band backed up against old, already-over tracks by groups like Everclear (who appear briefly during an irrelevant club scene), the Bloodhound Gang, and Fastball.
What makes any of this work and not a lot of it does is Heckerling’s ability to write and direct real-sounding but wholly unreal dialogue. Her work, including the quite brilliant Fast Times at Ridgemont High (written by Cameron Crowe) and Look Who’s Talking 1 and 2 (for which scripts she is responsible), has never been much inclined to realism so much as a kind of hopefulness or maybe wishfulness. Her characters tend to speak more blithely, quip more sharply, and fall all over themselves more pleasantly than most real people might imagine doing. The characters in Loser do all of this as well, but by now, the routine is perhaps not so fresh as it once was.
All this said, I’m inclined to like Loser, because it wants so badly to do well by its college-age heroes, and there are so many movies that have exactly the opposite intention. I’m not even so troubled by its trumped-up plot curves, presumably designed to throw Paul and Dora’s goodness into high relief (roofie-poisoning and slimy professors sleeping with their students aren’t real solid foundations for jokes, but whatever). What’s most unfortunate about all this is the lack of imagination indicated by such stretches. Using class to mark morality and identity is as old a trick as there is. If you’re going to, as they say, go there, you need to bring more than the cliches that everyone’s expecting.