As "Loser" opens, a family of country-bumpkin types waits for the postman. Shortly thereafter, young son Paul (Jason Biggs) rips open a thick envelope from New York University. He's been accepted to the school and granted a full-ride academic scholarship. It's a moment of relief and personal triumph.
Later, the relatives gather for a house party celebrating the kid's good fortune. His plump, somewhat eccentric pop (Dan Aykroyd) offers a bit of advice regarding social relations in the big city. "Interested is interesting," he says, suggesting that his son simply listen to other folks' needs, and hearty, friendly fellowship will follow.
It's a set-up that promises a certain amount of cruelty, with the poor country kid sure to be ravaged by the Northeastern sophisticates. Amy Heckerling, who previously dealt with the teen set in "Fast Times at Ridgemont High" and "Clueless," instead goes for something sweeter (if somewhat dimwitted): a not-unpleasant romantic comedy for audiences too young to relate to the travails of Julia Roberts and Richard Gere.
Heckerling hooks up with a couple of Gen-Y favorites, pairing Biggs ("Boys and Girls") with Mena Suvari, his co-star in last summer's teen-sex romp American Pie. Suvari, the diminutive, slightly exotic-looking object of Kevin Spacey's illicit affection in American Beauty, this time offers a variation on that role with her portrayal of Dora, a commuting student.
Her lover is Edward Alcott (Greg Kinnear, smartly cast), a teacher of English literature who risks his academic career for the dangerous liaison. At 34, Alcott, is an aging whiz kid with a decade of experience as a full professor at the school. He's snobbish and effete, fond of the clandestine interludes with his young bedmate but all too quick with cutting remarks and patronizing observations.
"If I wanted teen angst, I'd watch reruns of 'My So-Called Life,' he says after one spat.
Paul, who befriends the honey-eating, Everclear-listening Dora in Alcott's class, also gets a taste of the professor's vitriol. Sporting a goofy plaid hunter's cap with floppy ears (the nerd/alternative headgear of the moment), Paul trips and tumbles down the stairs at the start of one lecture. "I meant that," he announces, shortly before Alcott introduces him as Jerry Lewis.
The trust-fund slackers who are Paul's dorm mates (Zak Orth, Tom Sadoski and Jimmi Simpson) are even worse. They assault him with loud music, destroy his textbooks and laugh as his bed and belongings are flooded by a ruptured waterbed in the upper bunk. Chris (Sadoski) even offers some pointedly personal abuse in the guise of a heart-to-heart talk: "Nobody likes you," he confides.
It's tough to feel too bad for Paul, though, because his roommates are so patently clownish. A smart kid would doubtlessly see right through their too-cool facade. Ditto for Dora and her frustrating relationship with an older man: Can't she tell that it's a patently one-sided affair? The conflicts -- academic blackmail, distribution of date-rape drugs -- are undeveloped, and it's all too inevitable that the nerd and the cutie will end up together.
When it comes to quality control, "Loser" outpaces "American Pie," "Road Trip" and all those Freddie Prinze teenybopper comedies, thanks in part to funny cameos by Andy Dick and an uncredited David Spade. But not by much.