- The Washington Times - Friday, July 21, 2000

''Loser" pretty much squanders your predisposition to like it. Both inspiration and vigilance seem to fail writer-director Amy Heckerling, who contrived a gem of a romantic comedy in "Clueless" and might be excused from achieving back-to-back jewels.

The new film is a sputtering romantic comedy about ingenuous classmates at New York University, Jason Biggs as small-town geek and sweetheart Paul Tannek and Mena Suvari as scrambling Queens nomad Dora Diamond, but it has its bright moments. Dan Aykroyd and David Spade have wonderful fleeting scenes, for example.

The good stuff, however, never reinforces the illusion that Paul and Dora are made for each other or have much of anything in common. "Loser" is livelier when leaning on the subsidiary characters, who find it amusing to be romantic spoilers.

Greg Kinnear has a swell follow-up role to his snobbish Capt. Amazing in "Mighty Men" as Edward Alcott, a blithely snobbish and manipulative English professor involved in a clandestine love affair with Dora, one of his students in Modern European Literature 101. The straight-arrow hero, Paul, is sabotaged repeatedly by smug and prankish roommates Chris, Adam and Noah (Tom Sadoski, Zak Orth and Jimmi Simpson).

The seemingly homeless, or dormless, Dora is kept dangling by Alcott, who is reluctant to offer his girlfriend a roof over her head. Paul, meanwhile, becomes dormless when his contemptuous roomies get him transferred. At that point, living arrangements get permanently bewildering.

Paul ends up in a spare room at a Greenwich Village veterinary clinic, doing night-watchman chores between studies and saving the life of a newborn kitty at one point. Dora crashes with him in the aftermath of a near drug overdose induced by one of the nefarious roomies. With Paul carrying a torch for sad Dora, it's clear that we have an underage update of "The Apartment" to contemplate.

It isn't working. Obviously, "Clueless" benefited from Jane Austen's "Emma" and a Beverly Hills setting in ways that Miss Heckerling just cannot approximate while harking back to Billy Wilder and perhaps her own experience as an NYU student 20 years ago.

Mr. Biggs and Miss Suvari were in the cast of "American Pie" last summer, but they were not romantically matched. "Loser" suggests that they could be a physical and temperamental mismatch.

Mr. Biggs is the more winning and promising romantic partner. Likable on sight, he needs to have a few character traits that complicate transparent amiability. He doesn't get them as Paul, who just seems square to a fault as Miss Heckerling fiddles with his appeal.

Watching Mr. Kinnear make fun of Miss Suvari and his students, in general is more enjoyable than suffering with a lovesick Mr. Biggs. In addition, Mr. Biggs seems so much bigger than the diminutive leading lady that you're reminded of a vintage W.C. Fields quip: "Is she standing in a hole?"

Metaphorically, she is. Miss Suvari gets stuck in a retro rut: Dora resembles Sandra Dee as Gidget. She's so pitiably immature while being passed off as a sexually knowing cupcake that the caddishness of "American Beauty" seems even worse after you've seen "Loser."

Two stars out of four

TITLE: "Loser"

RATING: PG-13 (Occasional profanity, sexual candor, comic vulgarity and depictions of drug use)

CREDITS: Written and directed by Amy Heckerling.

RUNNING TIME: 98 minutes

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