Clearly, Heckerling would like to think Loser is her grown-up Fast Times, a comedy in which children teeter uncomfortably on the precipice of young adulthood and suffer the occasional terrible side effects that come with coming of age. She could do worse than steal from herself, since Fast Times (written by Cameron Crowe, based on his own book) was that rare film that managed to evoke laughs from a queasy, familiar truth--say, the scene in which Jennifer Jason Leigh loses her virginity in a sparsely lit dugout, which even now looks like something from a just-say-no documentary. Fast Times, with its jerk-off jokes and abortion melodramatics and stoner sensibility, never for a second felt fake or forced; it stopped smirking long enough to savor its hyper-reality. In the 18 years since its release, no high-school film has come close to capturing its anomalous tenderness or its slapstick cynicism. You liked it because you lived it.
So what became of that filmmaker who could drag her comedy to an abortion clinic and emerge unscathed? Since 1982, she's made only one good movie--1995's Clueless, her Jewish American Princess-in-Beverly Hills updating of Jane Austen's Emma--and a pile of hack-for-hire dreck, and even Clueless was bubblegum cinema, sweet but disposable. Her spotty résumé only hints at the disappointment one gets while comparing Fast Times to, say, the Michael Keaton gangster send-up Johnny Dangerously or Look Who's Talking Too. Imagine finding out the smartest person in class was faking it all along, cheating off someone else's paper--say, Cameron Crowe's or Jane Austen's. Not since David Clyde has such promise gone unfulfilled.
Loser barely even looks as though a professional made it: It begins and ends with such a shrug, you almost believe Heckerling is apologizing for what a mess it is. By the time it creeps to its finale--the inevitable Big Kiss between Biggs and Suvari, and shut the hell up if you think that's giving away anything--it's quite possible you won't realize the movie's over, since it's the most anticlimactic, dispassionate kiss shared by two, ah, lovers since Alec Guinness' Adolf planted one on Doris Kunstmann's Eva in Hitler: The Last Ten Days.
In what's surely the most inspired casting in days, Loser stars Biggs (the virginal dork in American Pie), Suvari (the virginal teen temptress in American Beauty), and Greg Kinnear (the luckiest man in America). The three of them form a love triangle that's more like a rhombus: Biggs' Paul is the small-town schlep who gets accepted to a big-city college in Manhattan, only to find no one likes him because, as he reminds his pa (Dan Akyroyd, now a very unfunny Canadian), "People in New York have a sarcastic sense of humor." Because Paul has no sense of humor, he's doomed: His jackass roommates loathe him to the point of getting him kicked out of the dorm, and girls find him just this side of repellent. It's an easy mistake to make.
Only one female takes any interest in him, Suvari's Dora, a bridge-and-tunnel girl who works in a topless joint to cover her tuition and eats honey from packets so she can save her food money. (In one rather confounding, quickly dismissed subplot, she's trying to get herself emancipated from her parents so she can get student aid. Apparently, the whole point of this detour is to work in the prerequisite Andy Dick cameo, which proves once more the only thing funny about that guy is his name.) Dora, however, has a prior love engagement with her condescending prick of a lit professor, Edward Alcott, played by Kinnear as though he's still hosting Talk Soup. The guy talks so far out the side of his mouth, his dialogue comes out his ear.
Edward treats Dora like crap: He screws with her in class, then screws her in private, maintaining that she's little more than a "dirty little secret." Eventually, she's making him tea and straightening his apartment--anything to keep her off the street. It takes her forever to notice what we know before we've even bought a ticket (and don't you dare): Paul's the guy for her, because he's The Nicest Guy Alive, even when she treats him like hell. At one point, she ditches him at an Everclear concert (who wouldn't?) to attend a party, where she gets slipped some Rohypnol by one of Paul's smarmy ex-roomies, two of whom (Tom Sadoski and Jimmi Simpson) look exactly the same (like a young James Spader crossed with the singer from Radiohead). Paul, who sports a perpetual golly-gee grin and the glazed-over eyes of the dead, winds up taking her to the hospital and keeps secret her relationship with the professor, even buying her flowers and pretending they're from Edward.
At this point, it's worth noting that this party takes place in a veterinarian's office, where Paul is forced to live when there proves to be no on-campus housing. How he ends up living at the vet--where, somehow, he winds up learning how to tend to newborn kitties trapped in their own fetal membranes--is just one thing never quite explained, for which you can only be thankful. If this movie went on any longer--and it's only 90 minutes, even though watching it makes you feel as though you're aging at a much slower rate than those outside the theater--you might be forced to form a suicide cult with the rest of the audience. Pay close enough attention, and you'll even notice that scenes take place out of sequence--sometimes, dude, you just gotta keep yourself occupied, and it's too dark in a theater to count ceiling tiles.
Heckerling, weaving in plotlines from episodes of Three's Company and Square Pegs, has managed to make a "teen" movie for old farts: Her references are outdated (Kinnear to Suvari: "If I wanted all this teen angst, I'd watch reruns of My So-Called Life"), her song selections are unfathomable (the final Big Kiss is done to Michael Penn's 1989 "No Myth"), and her jokes are so flat that she resorts to calling in special guests (Steven Wright and SCTV's Andrea Martin) to keep them aloft, to no avail. A trio of Fast Times grads even show up in bit roles: Brian Backer (Mark "Rat" Ratner) dons a doctor's gown to treat Dora when she shows up in the hospital, suffering from her drug overdose; Scott Thompson (Brad's bud Arnold) strolls down Fifth Avenue, talking about sexually transmitted diseases into a cellular phone; and Taylor Negron (the pizza-delivery dude) plays a photographer trying to get Dora into a bikini.
What--Judge Reinhold doesn't need work? Is Phoebe Cates too good for Heckerling these days? Is Robert Romanus dead? Is Ray Walston? So, all together now: "Willkommen, bienvenue, welcome..." Damn it, still can't get that out of my head.