I happened to become a teenager at a time when Hollywood was courting teenagers more aggressively than ever. When the WB gained traction by successfully cornering the youth market, every other network rushed its own teen drama shows into the 1999-2000 season, while telling everyone above 25 to go eat worms and die. There was also a sudden plague of teen-focused movies. You would think I'd have been thrilled. But in truth, I'd never felt more alienated.
For one thing, there was a previous rash of teen movies in the 80's and some of those films were already starting to be snickered at. Forgive me for foresight, but I knew people would be laughing just as hard at what was coming out now, and that awareness tempered my ability to enjoy any of it. But the bigger problem was that all these movies were about makeovers, getting laid, getting drunk, getting laid while drunk, getting drunk makeovers, and breakdancing. I couldn't relate to any of it.
When I first heard the plot synopsis for American Pie back in '99, my first reaction was "That sounds awful! Why would anyone want to watch that?" Turned out a lot of people wanted to watch that, to the extent that it's assumed for anyone my age, American Pie was what united our generation, and that we'll pay to watch as many inferior sequels as Tinseltown can barf up. Well, I'm sorry. I didn't care about American Pie then, and I don't now. I don't like crude sex humor; it's not funny to me. And I can't relate to any of the selfish, neanderthal dude-bros in it. Where was the movie for people who saved themselves for marriage, paid attention to their studies, shunned all narcotics and treated women with respect? I mean come on, that movie would be a BLAST!
By the twinge of sarcasm back there, you know I knew they'd never make that movie. I gave up on hoping for a Millennial teen flick I could identify with.
A decade later, I was watching late-night TV, something came on, and I discovered....they really did make my movie. They made a 90's teen movie, with all the current stars and flavor-of-the-month music and fashions, and based it around the viewpoint of a sheltered nerd. Not only that, he was clearly the hero of the picture and treated with respect, while the dude-bros were the villains. I only discovered it AFTER I had passed the 30-year mark, well too late for it to matter to Pimply Me. No one told me this movie existed! Thanks a lot, everyone I've ever met!
And you thought American Pie was the
only thing Jason Biggs was ever in.* So did I, until now. He
plays Paul, the loser of his self-named film, Loser.
*That, and he's a Ninja Turtle now. Seriously.
The movie opens in his podunk town, as he's celebrating at his parents' house which he has rarely been outside of. He's celebrating because he just recieved a letter of acceptance to a prestigious college in New York, as well as a full scholarship! He's so happy, he's gonna do the dance of joy! To boy band music!
"I always knew he was a prodigy from the day he started reading Archie at age 1," says his father Dan Aykroyd, making a cameo.
The painfully naive Paul skips into NYU and happily introduces himself to everyone, only to be met with blank stares and instantly-turned backs. He joins his literature class for the first time and immediately trips down the stadium seating. Everybody just laughs. The only sympathy he gets for his injury is when he sits next to Dora, a Perky Goth who says "Let me put some ice on it" and sets her iced cappucino on his knee. It's the most unglamorous meet-cute since Joyce Brabner threw up in Harvey Pekar's toilet, and darned if I don't love it.
Not only is this NOT a skirt-chasing film, a makeover film or a breakdancing film, it also isn't a wish-fulfillment film where the girl is way, way out of the guy's league but she picks him over every stud in the world through some miracle. Both Paul and Dora are losers, and the movie takes the time to develop both their lousy lives. They are both constantly used by other people, spit upon and neglected.
Paul is forced to share dormquarters with three of the frattiest frats who ever fratted. None of them have the dedication to their work that Paul does because they all have parents who are paying for their time there (and they're all wasting it pretty shamelessly). Paul must maintain a 3.5 GPA or above for his scholarship to remain active, but it's difficult when everybody he lives with constantly insults him, plays pranks on him and trashes his stuff. One of them tries to offer Paul a little help.
"I'm gonna tell you something. This is
gonna be for your own good, okay?" he says, sitting down
face-to-face with Paul.
"Sure," Paul replies.
"No one likes you."
Paul stares at him. That is seriously the guy's advice and he really thinks he's helping Paul with it. And it is so freaking true -- this movie has insensitive people down to a science. I've met this guy so many times. If you're reading this, guy, no one likes you. That was for your own good.
One morning Paul wakes up to water dripping on his face. It turns out the bunk bed above his has a waterbed mattress that has sprung a massive leak. As he panics and tries to futively stop the cascade with his hands, his roommates can't stop laughing at him. "It's water, man! Just let it dry out!" These stupid hypocrites wouldn't feel quite the same if it was their beds being soaked, but Paul will get no sympathy here.
Dora is often seen sucking on free packets of honey for sustenance becauer her tuition is so high that she can't afford actual food. She just barely covers said tuition by working a degrading waitressing job at a pole dancing club. She doesn't qualify for financial aid because she still lives with her parents (who don't exactly know where she works), and she often misses the subway home, forcing her to sleep at the station all night. In her opening sequence she doesn't seem to get much respect from her teacher, Edward Alcott, either, until a sudden jump in time to later that evening reveals....
...Dora is secretly his girlfriend. Or rather, his "girlfriend." Alcott is an egotistical doorknob who looks down on all his students and keeps Dora under his thumb by occasionally throwing in a flattering comment. Dora is just too thrilled to be dating an older man to realize she's being used for her body and Alcott's fishnet-stocking fetish.
Alcott would be fired if the faculty knew he was seeing a student, so the whole affair is hush-hush. Paul doesn't know about it and thinks he has a chance with Dora from the moment the iced cup hits his knee. He notices an Everclear sticker on Dora's binder, so he rushes out and buys two Everclear tickets, then casually mentions he has them while strolling with Dora. She giddily accepts the "date" and Paul thinks he's found a girlfriend, unaware that he's about to enter the painful rite-of-passage known as the "friend zone."
The next morning Paul is heading to his dorm room, but he finds a note on the door that says "MEETING IN COMMONS ROOM." There he finds he's been called to a surprise meeting with the dorm manager, and his roommates all suddenly sport neatly combed hair and pressed suits. "Paul, your friends have informed me about some....problems between you and them."
"Well," one begins. "It's not
like I don't like Paul as a person. But we've divided our chores
for the week, and he always has some excuse not to do
"And he says...derogatory things about other ethnic groups. And even though I believe in freedom of speech, it's like....the way smoke is air pollution, I believe racial slurs are hearing pollution."
"And....I don't want to sound girly or anything, but I believe all of us have taken an exception to Paul's personal hygiene...."
They fold their hands neatly.
The manager suggests, "How about we meet after a grace period, and we'll see how it's going."
Paul interrupts. "Well, I don't know if I could do that. I love making racial slurs, and I hate doing chores, and this indoor plumbing is just way too confusing for me, so....if they can't deal with it, I'd rather live alone."
He's sent to live at a small animal hospital in exchange for working there. He gets half a room to himself...the other half is taken up by smelly strays in cages, but at least they're cleaner and more mature than his previous tenants.
Speaking of which: they're currently lamenting
that their last party didn't go so well because not many chicks
showed up. One of them suddenly has an idea: "we host
another party. But we call it a fundraiser. Girls love
"Yeah! But what'll it be for?"
"What's that country with all the babies? China? Romania?"
"I dunno about babies, that's gonna give them the wrong message."
"Oh yeah, THAT'LL set the right mood."
"No, what do they need money for? All they need are phones."
As they chatter heading into the building,
they're suddenly stopped by new elements: a security guard and a
brand-new metal detector.
"What's the DEAL, man?"
"Mandatory searches for drugs and alcohol."
"WHAT? SINCE WHEN?"
"You know O'Brien from the eighth floor? He's in a coma!"
Not only does this new development threaten to put the kibosh on their "fundraiser," but on any parties of any kind in the near future. There's nothing they can do because none of them live outside of the dorm. Wait.....Paul does.....
Suddenly, they want to be his buddy again.
Paul is at the laundromat when one of those buddies pops in.
"I thought you made it pretty clear you
wanted me to leave...."
"Whaaat, you thought we were kickin' you out? Aw, c'mon! Why would I play you, dude?"
"Why? I don't know why....why would you reset my alarm clock so I'd be late for class? Why would you hide all my clothes and fill all the drawers with styrofoam? Why did you glue together every page of my psych book?"
"Do you know how LONG that took?" he says, cracking up, but quickly corrects himself.
"Aw, no, you don't understand! That's just
stuff we DO to each other! Doesn't mean we don't like you! You
remember all those talks I gave about how nobody likes you or
anything you do? I was tryin' ta help you get in with us!"
Paul is still suspicious of the guy, but he's also a giant pushover, so he agrees that the boys can hold the "fundraiser" at the animal shelter that night. They dress it up with some cheap funky lighting, grab some beer and are ready to go.
The night of the party happens to be the same night as the Everclear concert. Back to Dora's life; she was fired from her job and spends most of the day fruitlessly searching for another one. She's at a mini-mart, failing to get a night shift position, when one of the frats coincidentally enters to get more booze. "Hey," he says once she catches his eye, "do you know about this fundraiser? You should come! It's for a worthy cause...."
Dora has to be at the concert in 45 minutes, but she should have enough time to visit a fundraiser, if it's for charity. Unless she drinks some kind of spiked beverage and stumbles around dizzily until she passes out.
Poor Paul sits through the entire concert waiting for Dora and thinks she stood him up. When he returns to the shelter, the party is over and Paul must clean up the massive amounts of evidence left behind, including....some girl passed out over the toilet.
It's Dora! He's relieved to know her true wherabouts....for about three seconds, until he finds he can't wake her up. At all! He rushes her straight to the hospital.
A physician asks Paul what his relation to Dora
is. "I'm--uh, her boyfriend," he stammers out.
"I thought you said you just found her like that."
"Yeah, and....boy was I mad!"
"I'm asking because she has someone named Edward Alcott listed as her primary contact in case of emergencies. We tried calling him, but he said he didn't know her."
"Her English Lit teacher? That's strange; I wonder why she'd list him."
When one of the frats shows up at the door
later that morning, Paul looks ready to lynch his fat neck.
"WHAT KINDA DRUGS WERE YOU HANDING OUT?"
"Drugs?? I swear, all we had was beer!"
"You can't just pass out from beer!"
"Yeah you can, if you take something first!"
Paul also tells him about Alcott being listed as her case-of-emergency person. Paul just finds it odd, but Frat connects the dots immediately. "Listen, I got...something to take care of; I'll see you later." He's got a class to drop, a class to add, and some blackmail to commit.
Dora finally wakes up. Paul asks her why she
would put her English teacher as an emergency contact instead of
"I'm sorry," says Dora. "You've been so nice to me. I really should have told you he was my boyfriend."
Heart crushed, but Paul tries to play it cool anyway.
If Professor Alcott is really her boyfriend, Paul finds it strange that he still hasn't visited her or tried to contact her in any way. He ducks into English Lit at the same time the frats exit, whooping and elated for some reason. Alcott, by contrast, doesn't look happy at all, and when Paul says he wants to talk about Dora, Alcott mutters "I'll give you the same deal I gave the others."
"No," begins Paul, "see, Dora is
sick. Someone slipped her some drugs, and she had to have her
stomach pumped. She's been ill for two days--"
"Yeah, about that. Dora has this....schoolgirl crush on me. You know how they can build these relationships up in their head. Don't worry about it."
He drops the subject there. Paul can understand why he'd try to cover up the relationship, but not why he would show no concern for Dora after what he just told him.
He heads back to the animal shelter, where Dora is recovering nicely. She's feeling much better, she's helping out the vets with animals, and she also rearranged his living space while she was warmed up. She says now that she's feeling better she should head home, but Paul tries to stall. He manages to make her forget about going home for the entire day and into the evening. It's the moment we've been waiting for, their first complete "date," even though one party still sees the other as a friend. She shows him how to get into the art museum free if you're a student member, how to get cappuccino free from an unattended coffee cart, and how to see the second half of a Broadway play free if you discreetly mix into the crowd of people on their cigarette break.
Paul and Dora walk past a man
having an embarrassingly personal conversation on his cell in the
middle of the street.
"Can you believe the things people will say in public if they're on cell phones? Crazy."
"I hate people with cell phones," Dora declares.
"All of them?"
"ALL of them."
So she hates everybody in the entire world? You gotta love humor in retrospect.
"I had a girlfriend in high
"Do you still see her?"
"No.....she lost some weight over the summer, so she's dating a lot more now. I guess that sounds pretty lame to someone in a love affair."
"I don't know what it is. He says he doesn't want a relationship with me, but then he says things like how if he was a girl, he'd be me."
"But he said he didn't want to be in a relationship with you."
"Yeah.....and that he'd always love me."
"But he said he didn't want to be in a relationship with you."
"Well, sometimes, when someone's telling you something....they're trying to tell you something."
"Like men know what's good for them."
This horse isn't drinking. Paul drops the subject.
(By the way, reader: if the female side of this chat reminds you of yourself, you should go stick your head in a bucket of ice water, slap yourself in the face about twenty times, and then DUMP HIS ASS. Thank you.)
While Dora waits back at the vet center, Paul decides to cap off the evening by grabbing a movie and a pizza. (The credits don't say the video store clerk is David Spade, but....come on, that's totally David Spade.) "Hi honey, I'm home!" Paul happily declares as he bursts through the door with the goods. "Man, it feels good to say that to a real person for once and not a cat.......eeeehhhhhhhhhh......"
Professor Alcott picks that moment to finally show his ugly mug. Dora, smitten with ignorant bliss, gloms onto him immediately and goes home with him. Paul is left with nothing but a cold pizza, flowers and a VHS of "Simon Birch." And the movie's moody breakup music. They pick "Scarborough Fair" by Paul Simon, which is a little too on the nose, but it's at least better than other songs picked for scenes of this type. To be honest the film kind of sags in its final act, which is the case for a lot of romantic comedies, but I've seen worse. This may not be the best comparison, but I'm thinking of the montage where Fiona goes off with Farquaad and Shrek just sulks around while "Alleluia" plays. Ruined that song forever for me.
And now, for the first time in over 20 minutes, the Frat Boys. They'e planning a follow-up fundraiser because the first one "barely covered the beer." It didn't result in them scoring either, because too many of the attendees were conscious and had free will. They have a scheme to change this with the aid of some roofies. Now things are getting scary, but fortunately for all the women, the frats are stupid enough to let Paul in on their plan.
Paul purchases some gingko-based supplements from the health store that look exactly like their pill packets, and discreetly swaps them out on a quick visit to the dorm. Cut to that evening, where the boys constantly get shot down because gingko improves brain function and the girls are more aware than ever how disgusting the frats are.
Note that this entire sequence is just in the movie to kill time while Dora slowly realizes Paul is much better than Professor.
"So....next weekend I want to
take you to meet my parents."
"YOU TOLD YOUR PARENTS ABOUT MEEEE?" Dora gushes.
"Well.....I told them my girlfriend couldn't make it so I was taking along my teaching assistant."
You could say the honeymoon is finally over. Alcott has Dora constantly running errands for him, doing his laundry and sewing his clothes. Also, behind her back, he's diddling other students even younger than she is. The final straw comes when he takes her shopping to cleanse her of the gothic clothing she prefers and put her in stuffy suits.
As Alcott is being fitted for a
tuxedo, he casually throws out that he made a deal with everyone
who knows his secret to get an A in his class, but Paul wouldn't
take the test answers when they were offered. "So he's gonna
get a B. Can you believe it?"
Dora knows Paul can't afford a B or his GPA might dip and his scholarship will end. "You can't do that!"
"Sure I can; it's a B paper," he coldly rebuts. "He wanted that whole 'fairness' thing, not me."
The next time he turns around, Dora isn't there. She's run all the way back to Paul, where the expected happens:
Like I said, it sags toward the end -- there's really no twist here, it just ends like every rom-com does. But I like the first two-thirds enough to forgive that. Late discovery or not, I'm just glad it exists at all: a turn-of-the-century teen movie nerds and the uncool can relate to. This is exactly what it's like.
Except for, y'know, the part about him getting the girl in the end.
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