Get a clue: a teen oriented summer movie called Loser is never going to be about a serious screwup; it’s always going to be about a winner disguised as a loser. If Adam Sandler characters can do it, the upbeat message goes, then anyone, hormones willing, can overcome the funk and fumbles of adolescence. Only in real masterpieces of young angst — a book like ”The Catcher in the Rye,” a movie like ”Welcome to the Dollhouse” — do vulnerable antiheroes like Holden Caulfield and Dawn Wiener actually, spectacularly lose.
Anyhow, the titular underdog in Amy Heckerling’s well-meaning but hopelessly lost little comedy isn’t so much a dud as a nice, friendly, polite college freshman with a bad haircut and a worse hat. Armed with a full scholarship but deficient in protective cynicism, Paul Tannek (”American Pie”’s Jason Biggs) leaves generic Smalltown, USA, to attend a nameless school similar to New York University in Manhattan’s Greenwich Village. His father (Dan Aykroyd, one of many ”Saturday Night Live” alumni making cameo appearances) imparts ”Boys’ Life” advice on how to be a good conversationalist: ”Interested is interesting.” Knowledge of a few classic ”SNL” skits might have served the kid better.
Paul is gaga about Dora (”American Beauty”’s Mena Suvari), a tiny-boned, big-eyed sophisticate he meets in a lecture class. Dora is gaga about their professor (Greg Kinnear), an adulterous poseur for whom Dora is just a side dish. (Kinnear remains an expert at sliding from charm to smarm.) But the problem is that ”Loser” isn’t gaga enough. Biggs, the poor girl’s Freddie Prinze Jr., keeps a tighter rein than necessary on his ability to act the putz (possibly to atone for the tedious geek he recently played opposite Prinze in ”Boys and Girls”), and we miss the goofy awkwardness. Suvari, playing a more vulnerable vampette than she did in ”American Beauty,” squelches any trait of Dora’s that might be construed as manipulative, and we miss the hint of bitchiness.
Oddly, the affectionate empathy for teen life that Heckerling plugged into so electrically in ”Clueless” and ”Fast Times at Ridgemont High” feels under amped here; the charm she knows how to pull from young actors (Alicia Silverstone owes the director big-time) doesn’t make up for ”Loser”’s loss of what Kinnear’s pompous prof would call raison d’êum;tre. We learn that date rape drugs are bad, which is worth repeating. And we learn that stoned, slobby, cheating, destructive roommates will eventually receive their rightful penalties, which is wishful thinking: Just because deserving underdogs may advance doesn’t mean the undeserving elite will be properly punished in later life. As for the promise that nice guys finish first, Holden Caulfield would no doubt have had a few choice words for Heckerling: that it’s all one big goddamn phony lie.