There’s a famous cartoon from the New Yorker, a map where Manhattan looms large and the rest of the United States — the vast expanse from the Hudson River to the Pacific Ocean — is portrayed as an insignificant wasteland.

That point of view is central to Loser. Not only does scholarship student Paul Tannek (Jason Biggs) come from Hicksville, USA, but nearly everyone he meets at New York University interprets his guilelessness as stupidity.

Paul is smart yet hopelessly uncool. As writer/director Amy Heckerling makes abundantly clear in this collegiate romantic comedy, being a loser is a rough and often lonely road, but not without its benefits.

Paul stumbles (literally) upon a kindred spirit in Dora Diamond (Mena Suvari), whose goth exterior belies a perky determination. Commuting daily by train from the distant suburbs (which makes her only slightly less scorned than Paul), Dora is working her way through school at a demeaning but high-paying waitress job.

While Paul tries to make do with three of the most obnoxious, self-important roommates anyone’s ever been saddled with, Dora pursues a clandestine relationship with their fatuous literature professor, Edward Alcott (Greg Kinnear), unaware that she’s only the latest in a long line of impressionable, lovesick protégés. In this kind of movie, it’s only a matter of time before Paul and Dora find their way into a relationship, but they both need to figure a few things out first.

Unfortunately, while Heckerling has her teen characters face the harsh realities of independence, much of the adult material in Loser was sacrificed to achieve its PG rating. The resulting film is choppy, with great unexplained gaps and a plot which seems to lurch from one oddball situation to another, yet Loser isn’t a total washout.

Paul and Dora, both from lower-middle-class backgrounds, find their biggest struggle in New York involves money. Few films deal with the nitty-gritty of financial restrictions with the kind of knowing humor Heckerling employs here.

The film is also buoyed by the performances of the two leads. Suvari (the poster girl for carnal possibilities in American Beauty) brings a kind of spunky sexuality to Dora, along with the insecurity that makes her vulnerable to puffed-up sophisticates such as Alcott.

Biggs possesses an inherent sweetness which elicits audience empathy even when he’s in the most extreme situations, such as the nonstop sexual humiliations he faced in American Pie. But he manages to infuse these roles with a kind of intelligent vulnerability that makes him seem resilient instead of pitiful.

Despite its flaws, Loser is Amy Heckerling’s corny, heartfelt love letter to a misfit life whose membership requires only being true to yourself.

Serena Donadoni writes about film and culture for Metro Times. E-mail letters@metrotimes.com.

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