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NewCityNet American Cutie

By Ray Pride

JULY 24, 2000:  Yuck! And somehow, as well, Yay!

As a writer-director, Amy Heckerling darts from the accomplished (the timeless "Fast Times At Ridgemont High," the charming "Clueless") to the near-worthless ("Look Who's Talking," et al.). "Loser" is two movies in one--a beautifully intentioned innocent romance of city and sensibility, and a pile-driver subtle succession of indignities visited on Paul (Jason Biggs) and Dora (Mena Suvari) a couple of young, meant-to-be-sweethearts who are dealt dirt by everyone they meet at college in New York City.

Sometimes it seems American movies do all they can do to make us forget that the entire world is not forever coming of age or waiting to be smacked across the piehole by hormonally urgent first love. (One of the more common conversational fantasies I hear from regular, good-hearted moviegoers is for a men-behind-bars drama with Freddie Prinze Jr. as the fresh bait taking the bottom bunk in every possible fashion.) But "Loser" is not a shallow film, offering up vacuous cuteness for young viewers to inscribe their low fantasies upon, but a calculating, willfully sentimental one.

But that is not necessarily a bad thing. Worse is a laborious, wince-inducing setup that seems to last almost the entire movie. OK, OK, we know after twenty minutes, at the very least, after all the cruelties heaped upon them, that Dora and Paul need to steel themselves and stop behaving like just so much indoor-outdoor carpet. Every character except Dora and Paul is squirm-inducingly unpleasant, and the ugly stuff that happens to the pair makes the teeth itch. Nice country boy Paul moves into his dorm, and he's surrounded by prank-pulling, study-free, alcoholic, would-be promiscuous liars. The skinnied-down Biggs boasts bad hair, plucked eyebrows and what suspiciously resembles eyeliner. (He manages to radiate charm, even under the rotten makeup and his character's roster of truly awful jokes.) Dora, an adorable, tiny grunge twinkie, is sleeping with an arrogant English Lit professor (Greg Kinnear playing his ought-to-be-patented glib dirtbag, gleamingly groomed and unctuousness incarnate). Dora needs money to stay in school, so there's a couple of bits that find her bare-midriffed in a tight, black latex push-up bra, cocktail waitressing at a strip club. Later, she thinks she's found salvation through selling her eggs. Uh, yeah.

Sounds like an easily dismissed shambles, a hateful little spiteball of a movie. In retrospect, though, "Loser" suggests that the only innocence in the world is the potential for their love. To be an island unto themselves on the glorious, killing island called Manhattan. It's strange to hear casually spoken horrors amid the froth. After being drugged at a party and rushed to hospital by Paul, Dora, nonplused, casually concludes, "I think someone slipped me a roofie or something." That's an ugly vision of the world, yet it also includes a lovely close-up of this jerk-smitten child wondering of Paul, who she has not so much as even kissed, "Why are you so nice?"

Heckerling knows the movie's immense virtue is the rapport between Dora and Paul. Then she has the nerve--the largesse?--to put Paul into a part-time job at a veterinary clinic, so once the cuteness has led to that awwwwwww stage where you find out just how many mid-teen girls are in the audience, we get a scene of the pair together, tending to a mess of freshly thrown kitties. This goes beyond common superfluousness and overstatement, as Suvari is a kitty and a puppy all in one, a wide-eyed Keane child on black velvet come to flesh.

Studio movies, at their most base, reassure. And they are often about enshrining and elevating beauty, particularly that of "kooky" post-adolescent girls. Still, why not, when a banality, a whimsical banality, such as "Isn't this totally pleasant?" can burble out of a fetching young face and you can only agree and not feel dirty for agreeing.

With its grotesque undercurrents of anger, "Loser" is often laughable, risible, yet, in the end, it's enchanting. Charm outs. There is a good heart in this story, particularly when the goo-goo kids are together, grinning, cracking jokes, cradling small animals. "Loser" is sometimes comical--there is a video store clerk cameo that is one of the funniest, smartest things I've seen in an age--yet the real world complications grate as they are piled upon this pretty pair. Here is the moral to take away from "Loser": People are shit and relationships are shit and life is shit until you meet someone who is essential, quintessential and beyond rational possibility, and that there is no one and nothing that can keep you apart.


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