Nothing very surprising happens in Amy Heckerling’s collegiate
comedy about two ostensibly ill-matched freshmen who are drawn
together despite apparently insurmountable obstacles. Will
they eventually fall into each other’s arms or not? (Only
the class dunce would get the answer wrong.)

Yet despite its predictability, “Loser” is a breath of fresh
air in a genre that’s come increasingly to be marked by
overwhelming vulgarity on the one hand (see “Road Trip”) and
flatfooted blandness on the other (for example, “Boys and
Girls”). As in her highschool flicks (1982’s “Fast Times at
Ridgemont High” and 1995’s “Clueless”), Heckerling puts
enough spin on the formula and draws the characters with
such warmth and skill that the viewer becomes more caught up
in the pleasurable journey than the obvious destination.
(The same, unfortunately, can’t be said for the writer-
director’s other flicks, which include 1984’s tepid gangster
spoof “Johnny Dangerous,” 1985’s laboriously unfunny “European
Vacation” and the two awful “Look Who’s Talking” pictures of
1989 and 1990.)

In the present case, Paul (Jason Biggs) is a smart but dorky
scholarship winner at NYU whose plaid shirts and hayseed
winter cap identify him as a midwestern rube out of his element
in the Big Apple. Dora (Mena Suvari) is a chirpy, semi-
sophisticated local gal desperately trying to earn the cash
needed for tuition at the posh school; she’s also having an
affair with a smug, pretentious Lit professor named Alcott
(Greg Kinnear) who thinks himself both a great brain and an
irresistible Lothario. Added to the mix are Paul’s three
smarmy, scumbag roommates (Tom Sadoski, Zak Orth and Jimmi
Simpson) who not only needle our poor hero mercilessly but try
to satiate their lusts by drugging the objects of their
attention; in fact, it’s their plot to toss Paul out of
their common room and their attempted seduction of Dora that
accidentally throw the couple together and enable their
romance to develop. Of course, its progress will not be
without complication.

“Loser” is very slight and highly formulaic, but it’s also
surprisingly likable and assured. Heckerling’s dialogue is
far less stilted and jokey than the norm in this sort of
picture, and she makes Paul and Dora a bright, attractive pair
that one can actually sympathize with. She also–miracle of
miracles–dispenses with what has come to seem an obligatory
element in teen romances, the flamboyant and wisecracking
best friends who serve as secondary foils. In this genre
that’s a sea change. And, though she sets a portion of the
story in a veterinary hospital and features a number of dogs
and cats in the action, she doesn’t milk the animals for
laughs or sticky sentiment; such restraint is almost unheard
of in movies nowadays.

Of course, the writing wouldn’t work without good performers,
and Heckerling is fortunate in her choice of Biggs and Suvari.
The former happily abandons the frenetic style that made him so
irritating in “American Pie” and even more in “Boys and Girls”
in favor of a looser, more laid-back approach that gives him
some of the sweetness that his cohort Chris Klein exhibited in
“Pie.” Suvari, the voluptuous young thing who drove Kevin
Spacey wild in “American Beauty,” is a charming partner who
keeps us rooting for Dora even in the face of the character’s
denseness in matters of the heart. Kinnear is effortlessly
convincing as an obnoxious twit who not only hits on underage
students but proves willing to trade grades for silence about
his dalliances. And Sadoski, Orth and Simpson make an
appropriately odious trio as Paul’s rotten roomies. Dan
Aykroyd, in mellow “Driving Miss Daisy” mode, appears briefly
as Paul’s chunky dad, and Andy Dick has an amusing cameo as
a surly government worker.

Some critics will probably take the easy route and say that
“Loser” is aptly titled, but that would be a bum rap: it’s
hardly a masterpiece, but in comparison to the recent slew of
Freddie Prinze vehicles and gross-out teen farces, it’s a
nice change of pace. It does, however, end too abruptly,
leaving the futures of most of the characters to be summed up
in a succession of freeze frames with superimposed later bios.
That’s a lazy scriptwriting technique to begin with, but in
this case it’s exacerbated by mistakes in the text: one
of Paul’s roommates is described as being “setup” rather than
“set up” in later life, and another is said to secure “financial
aide” rather than “aid.” It’s a good thing we’re not grading
on spelling here.