Amy Heckerling has built up such audience goodwill -- deserved goodwill -- with "Fast Times at Ridgemont High" and "Clueless" that the bitterness of her new comedy, "Loser," comes as a shock. It's not a mean-spirited movie. (I doubt Heckerling has it in her to be mean-spirited.) She still loves her heroes, which is a blessing to them because nobody else does.
The opening scenes slide you into a warm bath of affection. Paul (Jason Biggs) is a working-class, small-town kid who wins a scholarship to a New York City college. He's the first person in his family to ever go beyond high school, and his folks are so proud they throw a bon voyage party with all the trimmings, rolled-up diplomas festooning every battered kitchen pantry door and a big cake with thick doodles of green frosting congratulating the "college man." It's one of those gatherings where the characters' bonds are so strong and assured that nobody has to acknowledge them -- they're as natural as breathing. A bunch of generations -- Paul's friends, relatives, neighbors, his parents' friends -- all mix together easily and happily. It all comes together when Paul joins his little sister and her friends in the kitchen to do some dancing that they've probably copied off of MTV. The way she looks at him, you can tell she thinks he's the coolest thing ever.
Paul isn't so sure. Later that night he admits to his dad (Dan Aykroyd, whose warmth has expanded exponentially with the pounds he's packed on) that he's afraid he won't fit in with the sophisticates of the big city where everyone is sarcastic "like on that 'Seinfeld' show." His dad assures that he'll do fine, that people are essentially good; all they're looking for is someone to listen to their story and really be interested.
The cold shower begins as soon as Paul hits New York. Everyone rebuffs his overtures and nobody laughs at his jokes, though they do make fun of the way he dresses and his attempts to make friends, even the slang he's picked up from his dad. His three roommates are spoiled rich shits who make it impossible for Paul to study, even though his scholarship depends on his maintaining a B+ average. His literature professor, Alcott (Greg Kinnear, oozing smarm), is a tenured prick who would rather make fun of his students than teach them.
The only person remotely kind to him is Dora (Mena Suvari) who's another outsider in Manhattan: She's from one of the other boroughs. Dora is struggling to keep body and soul together by working as a waitress in an upscale strip club, hustling to get off her shift so she can catch the last train home. Financially, she's hanging by a thread and emotionally she's not doing much better. Dora is the semester's cupcake of choice for Alcott, who doesn't spare her feelings in class, claiming that his job depends on keeping their affair a secret. When Paul ends up moving into a room at an animal shelter and Dora winds up staying with him, they seem to have stumbled upon the only creatures in the city even less protected than they.
Naturally, the movie charts how Paul and Dora become friends, allies and finally sweethearts (lovers seems too dramatic a term for these cuddly cuties). But it's really about being despised, broke and alone in New York. The kids in "Loser" are a year or so older than the high school kids of Heckerling's other movies, and college freshmen who see "Loser" may experience some of the same discomfort that the initial teen audiences of "Fast Times at Ridgemont High" did. The slights we experience at that age can make us wince even years later. (When I was a junior at a college full of rich kids, a sophomore who used to ask me for music recommendations refused to let me borrow an album because, he said, my stereo wasn't good enough.)
"Loser" makes it clear that Heckerling recalls every one of those slights. In the movie's production notes she's quoted as saying, "When I was in college, I didn't even know I was a teenager -- I just knew that I was struggling to get money for tuition. My whole life revolved around money -- how I was going to get it, how not to spend it, how I was going to get more credits for less money, what I was going to do if they raised the tuition." When you're among kids who use school as an excuse to party since their college tuition is merely a sliver of their parents' wad, and who look down on anyone not in the same position, that predicament stings. (Paul's roomies, played by Zak Orth, Jimmi Simpson and Thomas Sadoski, are like the hell-spawn of Philip Seymour Hoffman's preppie swine in "The Talented Mr. Ripley." The costume designer Mona May provides this trio with hilarious ensembles, club-wear equivalents of prep tastelessness.)
We've become so used to movies that use New York as a playground for romantic comedy that you may keep expecting it here long after it's apparent that Heckerling has no interest in delivering it. Her vision of Manhattan is as constricting and off-putting as her vision of the malls and suburban strips of Southern California were invitations to teenage freedom in "Fast Times" and "Clueless." With the exception of a stray shot of a Soho bakery and a leafy park, cinematographer Rob Hahn presents the city as alternately gray and garish, a warren of forbidding buildings, crummy video stores and delis. When Paul and Dora stand in the middle of Times Square at night, neon has never looked less inviting.
The only way for people who aren't rich to have any fun is in this New York is to beg, borrow or steal it, literally. On a daylong spree, Paul and Dora go to a museum courtesy of her student pass, swipe a loaf of bread for lunch and sneak into a Broadway show at intermission. They have a ball, but Heckerling never lets us forget it's all by virtue of their wits.
Because she's essentially a sweet-tempered filmmaker trying to express rejection and resentment, Heckerling has made a special kind of misfire -- a movie that's divided against itself, struggling to be cold-eyed and tender at the same time. If she wasn't as sweet, incidents like one of Paul roommates' slipping Dora a Rohypnol, or Dora attempting to make money by taking hormone shots so she can sell her ovulated eggs, would seem too mean. As it is, they're rough enough for a comedy.
Heckerling has provided good lines, and the actors hit the laughs. But the jokes stick in your throat because the hurt inflicted on Paul and Dora is raw. Heckerling pushes the sympathy envelope too far in a sequence using that high school poetry class clunker, Simon and Garfunkel's "Scarborough Fair." Amazingly, she pulls off all the stuff with the homeless animals, including a potentially disastrous sequence where Paul nurses an abandoned newborn kitten to life.
Biggs, who will probably always be known as the pastry porker in "American Pie," is so good he doesn't have to push for sympathy. He's got an uncommon asset in actors of any age: He's absolutely not afraid to look like a fool. Walking around in his Floyd R. Turbo hat and a goofy grin that he fully expects people to respond to, Paul is inadvertently begging to be ridiculed. It's Biggs' confusion at being ridiculed that carries the day, though I do hope that this is the last of his nerd roles. When, at the end of the movie, Biggs exchanges his straight, center-parted locks (try to imagine a skateboarder affecting Louise Brooks' bob) for a curly pomp, Heckerling appears to be noticing what no other director has: that he's a handsome young man.
I think you'd have to work awfully hard to dislike Suvari. The role of Dora isn't really defined apart from a kooky eagerness to please. But Suvari endears with those big, googly eyes (sooty here under layers of eyeliner). In 100 years, she may look as quaint as a Gibson Girl, a sweet idealization of her era's fashion. That baby face and tiny build may limit the type of roles she gets, but her charm isn't fake.
Heckerling loves her actors, and judging by how many show up from her past films, they must love her, too. Brian Backer, Scott Thomson and Taylor Negron (who first worked with Heckerling nearly 20 years ago in "Fast Times") turn up, as does Twink Caplan (who also produced the movie), who played Miss Geist, the romantically befuddled teacher who became the object of Wallace Shawn's affections in "Clueless." (If you want proof of Heckerling's sweetness, it's right there: a director who makes a movie where Wally Shawn gets the girl.)
Those actors enhance "Loser" because lasting connections in a world where the bastards always come out on top are at the heart of the movie. Heckerling can't pull the movie off, but you don't doubt her sincerity or good intentions for a second. And what she's trying to express comes through. As clearly as any movie this year, "Loser" says that the most valuable things in a cold world are the relationships we form and sustain. It's completely out of place amid the feel-good fervor of summer movies, and, sadly, it probably won't last long against overblown dreck like "The Patriot" (a picture Timothy McVeigh would salute) or "Scary Movie." But you may feel as protective of it as you do of its heroes. Sometimes the failures deserve more love than the winners.