[Screen It]

(2000) (Jason Biggs, Mena Suvari) (PG-13)

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Romantic Comedy: A small town student tries to fit in at a big city university where he falls for another student who's dating their professor.
Paul Tannek (JASON BIGGS) is a young man from a small town who's just enrolled in a New York City university. Since he's there on a full scholarship and must maintain his grades, he studies a lot. Such behavior appalls his three roommates, Adam (ZAK ORTH), Chris (TOM SADOSKI), and Noah (JIMMI SIMPSON), who'd rather be partying and spiking young women's drinks with date rape drugs.

Paul tries to follow the advice given to him by his dad (DAN AYKROYD) about being other's attentive friends, but most everyone seems to think he's nothing but a loser. That is, except for Dora Diamond (MENA SUVARI), a fellow student he meets in his literature class. Immediately smitten with her, Paul is unaware that she's dating their thirty-something professor, Edward Alcott (GREG KINNEAR), who turns out to be using Dora just for sex and isn't interested in a relationship.

While Dora attempts to find a way to earn money so that she can continue attending classes, Paul moves into an empty room in a nearby veterinary office to get away from his obnoxious, party-hearty roommates. As he deals with their repeat appearances and strives to maintain his GPA, Paul wonders when Dora will discover that he, and not Alcott, is the right person for her.

OUR TAKE: 3.5 out of 10
It's long been argued whether people develop and ultimately behave as they do because of their surroundings or due to some predetermined genetic code that ultimately determines whether they become rocket scientists or social deviants. The answer, of course, is usually a combination of both.

As applied to that nature versus nurture argument, the performances of actors and actresses in certain films are affected - for good and bad - by their cinematic surroundings, while others seem to rise above them, as if they're invulnerable to every other aspect of the film.

There are countless pictures where mediocre and even lousy acting attempts have been tempered by and/or overlooked or forgiven by a decent or even really good film that supports them. Conversely, there are even more films where actors and actresses have managed to deliver good and even great performances while surrounded by nothing but production flotsam, mediocrity and occasionally complete and utter filmmaking idiocy and ineptitude.

While the performances delivered by Jason Biggs and Mena Suvari in writer/director Amy Heckerling's latest film, "Loser," can't be considered outstanding, they're easily the best thing in it and clearly manage to shine despite the film's numerous problems.

Among them is the mediocre script. Despite the title and the misinformed/mean spirited belief of his roommates, the protagonist isn't a loser -- he's just a nice guy trying to do the right thing. Of course, that latter description doesn't make for a funny sounding title, but for those expecting a lead character along the lines of what the title suggests, the way the movie plays out - as a teen-based, romantic comedy - may be a disappointment to some.

While the film thankfully avoids the repetitive trappings of so many recent such films (that seemingly always star Freddie Prinze, Jr. and conclude at the high school prom), it unfortunately comes off as a rather mediocre and unimaginative variation on the standard romantic comedy plot.

The film's biggest problem, however, is in its choice and portrayal of its supporting characters and the directly related material that's been intended to generate laughs. Beyond the two central characters who are more or less credibly drawn and played (despite some motivational problems I'll address in a moment), the rest of the characters are stereotypes, caricatures and/or otherwise generally unappealing people.

While nearly every movie must contain some form of antagonists, the rule of thumb is that the more fleshed out and "appealing" they are - whether in a completely love 'em or hate 'em fashion - the better the resulting dramatic or comedic conflict - and thus the picture - will be. When they appear as cartoons - especially ugly and despicable ones - the effect is usually that the viewer will be turned off by such portrayals.

That's certainly what happens here. Who knows if Heckerling - who's had her share of good and/or fun films ("Clueless," "Fast Times at Ridgemont High") and bad and/or annoying ones ("Johnny Dangerously," "European Vacation" and the first two "Look Who's Talking" pictures) - thought her supporting characters here were funny, but they and their behavior clearly ruin the film.

After all, when was the last time you had a good laugh from material concerning date rape drugs (the favorite pastime of Paul's obnoxious and decidedly unfunny roommates), or Lolita-type professors who are nothing but condescending and demeaning to their teenage lovers (Dora's "boyfriend" is her loathsome college professor).

Directly tied to those characters are Paul and Dora's behavior and character motivation. We never know why Dora puts up with the creep of a boyfriend she has in her professor. Does he have something on her? Will he fail her and she'll then lose part of some supplemental scholarship money? Perhaps she was dropped on her head as a child.

Similarly, we never know why the otherwise intelligent Paul is so gullible in regards to his roommates. Is it just because he's from a small town and these are boys from the big city, and they're getting too sophisticated on him? Had Heckerling better defined and then executed a rationale behind their behavior, such moments might have been easier to accept. Unfortunately, that never occurs.

For good or bad, the film also doesn't play up the usual and expected fish out of water moments regarding country bumpkin Paul finding himself in the strange and foreign big city. While some are probably thankful for that omission, at least it would have provided for some much-needed material to jumpstart the comedy. Instead, we get a few cameos from well-known performers to deliver those laughs. Some do manage to work (David Spade is funny as a knowledgeable video store clerk) but others don't despite their potential (the deadpan Stephen Wright as a lech who wants to buy Dora's panties at the strip club where she works).

The performances from the two lead performers, however, offset at least some of that collective damage. As the incorrectly labeled titular character, Jason Biggs ("American Pie," "Boys and Girls") delivers a charming performance. While he isn't given anything particularly memorable to say or do, he certainly infuses the character with a lot of heart and makes him likable. Notwithstanding her character's more serious motivational problems, Mena Suvari ("American Beauty," "American Pie") is also delightful in the role, particularly when she and Biggs interact and the sparks fly between them.

As the poorly drawn and decidedly unfunny antagonists, Zak Orth ("Down to You," "Snow Falling on Cedars"), Tom Sadoski (making his big screen debut) and Jimmi Simpson (also making his debut), can't do anything with their characters, while the only reaction that Greg Kinnear ("What Planet Are You From?" "As Good As It Gets") is likely to elicit as the one-dimensional creep/professor is wonderment about why he accepted the role and whether he should fire his agent.

Like any concerned parent who's worried about the people influencing their kids, one continually wishes that they could transfer Biggs, Suvari and their characters into another college in a different romantic comedy where they wouldn't be surrounded by obnoxious, despicable characters and mediocre filmmaking.

Alas, that's not to be. Predictable and forgettable, the film is somewhat charming and pleasant enough, only due to the presence of the two central characters, to avoid being a romantic comedy debacle. Even so, it's something of a disappointment considering how Heckerling made the high school antics of the early '80s and '90s in her previous films so enjoyable. Unfortunately, that's not the case here with her graduation to college-related material, and as such, "Loser" rates as just a 3.5 out of 10.

Reviewed July 18, 2000 / Posted July 21, 2000

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