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while watching loser , it occurred to me that amy heckerling's true genius as a film-maker is casting .
in fast times at ridgemont high , she gave us sean penn's jeff spicoli ; in look who's talking , she turned bruce willis into a wise-cracking baby and provided john travolta with is first career revival ; in clueless , she found a star vehicle for the adorableness that is ( or was ) alicia silverstone .
she seems to understand instinctively how to find performers the audience will like in spite of their flaws .
unfortunately , she may also be starting to understand that she understands .
giving appealing actors an appealing script creates likeable movies .
giving appealing actors a script in which their appeal _is_ the movie makes for unexpectedly awful films like loser .
naturally , heckerling makes her protagonist an all-around swell guy .
paul tannek ( jason biggs ) is a small-town boy who gets a scholarship to nyu , then instantly finds himself an island of compassion and diligence in the cold-hearted big city .
paul is the kind of guy who gives up his seat on the subway to an elderly woman ; his roommates adam ( zak orth ) , chris ( tom sadoski ) and noah ( jimmi simpson ) are the kind of guys who blast their music and let their waterbeds leak all over paul .
paul is also the kind of guy who adores girls from afar , in this case the lovely dora diamond ( mena suvari ) .
dora has problems of her own , including a shortage of funds to pay her tuition and a relationship with a professor , edward alcott ( greg kinnear ) , that's more than slightly one-sided .
they're two conscientious kids who love animals and homeless people , so clearly they belong together , even if paul is a loser .
i must confess that , for a while , i was suckered in by heckerling's casting .
jason biggs is an engaging performer whose unconventional looks make him even easier to embrace ; suvari is a coquette with an undercurrent of intelligence .
they're pleasant enough to watch , and heckerling gives us plenty of scenes establishing how nice they are and how nice their respective antagonists aren't .
then it gradually becomes clear that there's virtually nothing to loser but scenes of that sort .
in theory , loser is a romantic comedy , but there is scarcely a laugh to be found in the entire film ( notable exception : a cameo by a scene-stealing comic actor as a video store clerk ) .
instead of taking any time to make the characters' situations funny , heckerling spends 98 minutes making her characters' situations pathetic .
she shows none of the ear for quirky dialogue that sparked clueless , nor any of that film's interest in lively plotting ( not surprisingly , since clueless's plot came via jane austen's emma ) .
she simply turns the film into a pity party .
since loser is a film composed almost entirely of establishing character , you might think that those characters would be interesting , or at least slightly complicated .
instead , you have people either so perfect or so unredeemable that there's no reason to watch them .
paul isn't just a nice guy , he's flawless ; consequently , he's a central character who does absolutely no growing .
his roommates aren't just inconsiderate , they're actively evil-blackmailing professor alcott , drugging women with rohypnol and generally giving humanity a bad name .
and professor alcott isn't just manipulative , he turns dora into his house slave .
dora's unthinking devotion to alcott is the only whiff of basic human frailty to be found in loser , and even that isn't explored in sufficient detail .
there's more ambiguity in the 30-second snippet from alan cumming's broadway performance as the emcee in cabaret then there is in the rest of loser it's one thing to turn supporting characters into comic exaggerations ; it's another to flatten your leads into easily digestible mush .
and it would help if those comic exaggerations were somehow . . .
i don't know . . .
comic .
still , i spent much of the film holding out the ridiculous hope that heckerling would somehow salvage loser from its tedium and justify my desire to like paul and dora .
that hope dissolved the moment heckerling underscored a sequence of paul in the throes of unrequited love to simon and garfunkel's " scarborough fair/canticle . "
instead of giving the sequence a knowing wink-a reference to the graduate , a hint that paul is becoming an overly-sensitive clich-heckerling plays it deadly straight .
even in the scenes that scream for a light comic touch and a bit of a poke at her protagonist's foibles , she finds it impossible to stray from the gospel of paul as saint .
clueless's cher had her self-absorption and manipulative tendencies to balance her cuteness .
in loser , amy heckerling shows a leaden hand with material that demands friskiness ( her one show of wit involves naming paul's dorm " hunt's hall " after erstwhile bowery boy huntz hall ) .
her gift with casting proved to be her curse .
loser may be a crashing bore , but gee , aren't those two kids swell ?