September 25, 2002 1:23pm EST
Cabbie Tarek Fahd eager to return to a career in journalism answers an intriguing ad seeking participants in a scientific experiment and pitches his ex-boss on a story about it. The program set up by a professor and his assistant involves 20 men who are confined for two weeks in a mock prison where they assume the roles of guards or prisoners. Those chosen will be paid handsomely closely monitored and (supposedly) immune to violence since it is strictly verboten. Just prior to entering the mock prison Tarek literally bumps into Dora (Maren Eggert) when their cars collide and a passionate one-night stand ensues. They part so that he can carry out his assignment. At the mock-prison Tarek who secretly wears a minicam hidden in his glasses is assigned to the "inmate" team not the choicer of the two categories since "inmates" are subjected to more rules and restrictions than their "guard" adversaries. Tarek's journalistic instincts soon take over as eager for a good story he provokes a guard who torments another inmate for not finishing his meal. Tarek in turn is punished and humiliated thus further and dangerously stoking the rivalry and inciting several guards including their pernicious leader Berkus (Justus von Dohnanyi ) and the dangerously aggressive Eckert (Timo Dierkes). Things get out of hand and the violence escalates to fatal proportions until Tarek fortified by the love of a woman saves the day.
As he showed in Run Lola Run Moritz Bleibtreu as Tarek has true star quality. He's a pleasure to watch plus he's thoroughly believable. Bleibtreu is no doubt helped by the strong supporting roles including von Dohnanyi as Berkus Dierkes as Eckert Edgar Selge as the effete Professor and Andrea Sawatzki as skeptical assistant Dr. Grimm who will pay a price.
Like so many books plays and films before it Das Experiment in German with English subtitles focuses on how good intentions go disastrously astray when people are thrown together and human nature rears its ugliest head. Blessed with his fine actors director Oliver Hirschbiegel works from a script by Mario Giordano Christoph Darnstadt and Don Bohlinger who adapted it from a book that recalls a real-life Stanford University experiment. Hirschbiegel ably delivers some nifty visuals meant to be the hero's point-of-view as seen through his embedded minicam. The director is a master of pacing which helps overcome the fact that his set and story don't always persuade and he turns his parable into an eminently watchable piece.
When gullible small-town square Paul (Biggs) gets a scholarship to a prestigious New York City university he's ripe for the plucking from the likes of his spoiled rich roommates (Zak Orth Tom Sadoski Jimmi Simpson). Meanwhile Paul's classmate Dora (Mena Suvari) tries to balance schoolwork off-campus jobs and a covert relationship with her world lit professor (Greg Kinnear). Will Paul and Dora two very different breeds of social outcast find a way to hook up? You don't need SAT scores in the 99th percentile to figure that one out.
Biggs' natural goofiness and Everyboy likability go a long way toward making "Loser" watchable but there's little the talented young actor can do with the lifeless increasingly predictable storyline. Suvari who functioned well enough as "American Beauty's" teen lust object ranges from weak to downright awful trying to navigate a lead role in this vastly inferior film. Kinnear lends a piggish charm to his people-using misogynist prof easily the film's most entertaining character.
Writer-director Amy Heckerling who so successfully mined the comic potential of '80s and '90s youth culture in the genre classics "Fast Times at Ridgemont High" and "Clueless " scores surprisingly few laughs in moving her act to an institution of higher learning. To its credit "Loser" shows more respect for the audience's intelligence than the average campus comedy fare taking the time to delve into a few real issues (teacher/student relationships inequalities between rich and middle-class students) along the way but the results simply don't generate the sparks Heckerling's earlier high school films did.