Chasing Amys

Stepping backward: Director Amy Heckerling on the set of Loser

Los Angeles--


"You know what that was at the end? With the hair?" Amy asks. "Nobody goes from long to short with no explanation. That was a reshoot. Whatever the first ending was, it clearly bombed." With that, Amy pulls out her phone and calls her brother's voice mail. "Kevin," she says, "it's Amy. I've got Kirsten in the car, we're just leaving the UA Westwood, and I'm calling to tell you that your little $24,000 movie runs circles around Amy Heckerling's. I'll tell you more when I get home, but right now Kirsten owes me a very expensive dinner." She closes the phone and pushes the antenna down with her chin. "That was unremittingly awful," she says. "I'm not even happy I saw it for free."

Let me tell you who Amy is. Amy finances films in L.A. She negotiates multimillion-dollar budgets in conference calls to Australia, and her car is full because she has just foreclosed on a $10 million production. Long before she graduated from high school, Amy had developed the ability to hold a room. As an adult, she has developed the ability to hold a plane: Truly, you haven't seen Amy in action until you've seen her fending off antsy flight attendants while, in the distance, her late-arriving friend sprints toward the gate. Amy is six feet tall, she has red hair, and nearly everything about her is larger than life. She's driving tonight because the press bus never showed at the Four Seasons, and a couple of desperate publicists pressed her into service.

Amy, as coincidence would have it, was the first person to show me Fast Times at Ridgemont High, Amy Heckerling's 1982 teensploitation epic. (Kids in our Chicago suburb spent Saturday nights getting stoned and fast-forwarding to the Spicoli parts.) The sunny Clueless, also directed by Heckerling, is another of Amy's all-time favorites; while slicker and glossier than Fast Times, it shares the dead-on characterization of the emotional and hormonal storms of late adolescence, even (or especially) down to the of-the-moment clothes, music, and lingo.

Loser, which ought to complete Heckerling's teen trilogy, is equally precise with the surface details but uncharacteristically tone-deaf at heart. The most autobiographical of the director's films to date, it matches Paul (Jason Biggs in an ugly hat), a likable scholarship kid from the boondocks, with Dora (Mena Suvari in burgundy pseudo-dreads), a bedraggled, gothish firecracker from the boroughs. They meet as first-year students at an unspecified New York City college. Paul's problem is that he's a social exile amid cooler-than-thou roommates; Dora's is that she's struggling to put herself through school and sleeping with her bastard professor (Greg Kinnear).

The plot, basically, has Paul and Dora getting dumped on, suffering alone, and getting dumped on again. It's as if the writer-director, tired of being questioned about the nihilistic Kids (which debuted in 1995 alongside Clueless, with which it was endlessly compared), has borrowed some Harmony Korine characters and set them loose in an Amy Heckerling movie. Paul's roommates are sociopathic predators who drug women in order to sleep with them. Dora's lover belittles her in public and abandons her at crucial moments. There is nary a Spicoli to lighten the load--here, even the parties are dangerous places.

"When I first started to write this, I wasn't in the happiest place," explains Heckerling at the Four Seasons the day after the screening, tucking her feet underneath her as if the temperature has just dropped ten degrees. "I wanted to write something about a person who was being moral in an immoral world and wasn't getting all the great stuff. And everybody else around him was not doing the right things and they were getting it all--you know? I wanted to see a character like that finally come out on top."


If it sounds personal, it is. For one thing, Heckerling spent college the way Dora does--commuting from the Bronx to NYU and struggling to pay her own tuition. For another, Heckerling's daughter recently turned 14, and both our conversation and the movie make it clear that the years between 14 and 21 look a lot less fun from a parent's perspective. "[Having a daughter] intensifies it, sure," she says when I point this out. "You can't stop thinking about where girls stand and how they feel about themselves--the self-esteem issues once the hormones kick in." Accordingly, Dora is, as Heckerling puts it, "a step backwards" from Stacy and Linda in Fast Times, one of the first teen movies to consider sexuality from a female point of view. In fact, both Dora and Paul are a step backward from the regular kids of her previous movies. Weighted down by all that morality and beset by agents of immorality, they're not just in over their heads--they're entirely at the mercy of forces they can't control. Loser might accurately represent the way that loserdom feels on those darkest of days, but it's not a place you'd ever want to visit.

This being an Amy Heckerling film, Loser's "big kiss" ending is still de rigueur, even if it's a bit of a non sequitur. (The director was mum on the subject of the original denouement, which she had trumpeted as a "trick ending" to the L.A. Times earlier this May.) The question that goes unanswered in the film is: What, in the end, brings our hero out on top? Are good, decent people bound--like soap--to float there eventually?

"In real life?" asks Heckerling. "No."

Which reminds me: Let me tell you more about my friend Amy. In 1991 she graduated at the bottom of our high school class. Banned from living at home, she moved out the day after graduation and spent years working for minimum wage at hot dog stands and coffee shops. In 1999 she graduated with honors from USC, landed her job in the movies, ran the L.A. Marathon, and joined the Junior League. Driving down Wilshire Boulevard tonight, she is proof positive that, sometimes in life, what seems like unremitting bleakness can cut to a happy ending. Still, one doesn't naturally follow the other, and the more interesting stories include how this switch occurs. In Loser, we skip that part. In Amy's case, I'm sworn to secrecy. But, believe me, bleak or not, her version of those years sounds a lot more like a movie worth seeing.


Loser starts Friday at area theaters.

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