Underwhelmed by underdogs

<i>Loser </i>Amy Heckerling (12) <i>Grey Owl </i>Richard Attenborough (PG) <i>Purely Belter </i>Mark Herman (15)
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Having examined the travails of a rich girl in Clueless, now Amy Heckerling does the same for a poor boy in her new one, Loser. Jason Biggs plays Paul, a bright but unworldly hayseed who finds life a struggle at his New York college, not just through lack of funds but because of the contemptible selfishness of his three "hip" room-mates. "You talk weird and your clothes are lame", one of them advises him. His best chance of happiness seems to be with an equally impoverished student, the delightful Dora (Mena Suvari), but she's already involved with their English professor (Greg Kinnear), whom she fails to see is a patronising jerk.

Having examined the travails of a rich girl in Clueless, now Amy Heckerling does the same for a poor boy in her new one, Loser. Jason Biggs plays Paul, a bright but unworldly hayseed who finds life a struggle at his New York college, not just through lack of funds but because of the contemptible selfishness of his three "hip" room-mates. "You talk weird and your clothes are lame", one of them advises him. His best chance of happiness seems to be with an equally impoverished student, the delightful Dora (Mena Suvari), but she's already involved with their English professor (Greg Kinnear), whom she fails to see is a patronising jerk.

The trouble with this is that Heckerling has loaded the scales way too crudely. Paul and Dora are Dickensianly sweet, noble-souled and poor, while everybody else is a repulsive, self-seeking slimeball. The moral ambiguity is nil. Jason Biggs, so good in American Pie, is here required to play a character whose faith in people sails much too close to gullibility; after a while, his innocence becomes merely exasperating. How much of a sap can you be? Mena Suvari is more amiable, but she's made to look a bit of a doormat in dealing with the prof - we're told that she's smart, yet she encourages him to trample all over her. Heckerling's script is so busy trying to ingratiate its hero and heroine with us that it never twigs the possibility that we might find them just a little stupid.

Richard Attenborough's Grey Owl is based on the real-life career of a heroic impostor. Archie Grey Owl (Pierce Brosnan) was a frontiersman in Thirties Canada who briefly became the most famous native Indian in the world. Having made his living as a trapper, he was transformed by the love of a woman (Annie Galipeau) into an environmentalist and defender of wildlife: "I'm speaking up for the beaver", he announces, which caused much sniggering at the press screening. Grey Owl also wrote a book about his life, did a lecture tour of England and was a guest of honour at Buckingham Palace - only after his death was it revealed that he was actually one Archie Belaney from Hastings, England, and that his Indian ancestry was a complete fiction. (Did no one ever wonder about that name "Archie"?).

Not bad material for a movie, then, but somehow Grey Owl goes horribly awry. Mostly it's to do with William Nicholson's script, one of the clunkiest I've heard in years, and Attenborough's flailing attempts to make any of it play naturally. There's a kind of literary tremulousness to every line that shrieks with falseness or sentimentality, or both. Brosnan isn't bad, once you've got past the long pigtails and the uncertain Celtic brogue, but Annie Galipeau, for all her doe-eyed loveliness, is shockingly poor in the role of Grey Owl's helpmeet and conscience. The film's message - that concern for the planet is paramount, no matter who preaches it - would be stirring, if it were not accompanied by our own muttered curses and groans of dismay at the standard of its delivery.

With Brassed Off and Little Voice already on his CV, writer-director Mark Herman is fast becoming British cinema's leading exponent of the underdog comedy. In Purely Belter his plucky heroes are a couple of tearaways, Gerry (Chris Beattie) and Sewell (Greg McLane), who are desperate to get their mitts on a pair of Newcastle FC season tickets, but realise that 500 quid a piece is beyond their means. Their solution: shoplifting sprees, grifting, housebreaking and an abortive bank hold-up. I think that Herman drastically misjudges audience sympathy on the subject of petty crime, but I could be wrong. The mitigating circumstances, in Gerry's case at least, are a severely ill mother, a violent alcoholic father and an inkling that society, personified in a bullying games teacher (Kevin Whately), will always consider him "a waste of space". The model is plainly Kes, a mark of ambition which Herman's screenwriting talent sadly can't match. The boys' profane banter isn't terribly funny, and there's a tendency to overstate everything: the scene where Gerry meets his junkie sister plays almost like a spoof of modern teenage delinquency. In the end you suspect that all the film really wants to provoke is that ghastly combination, laughter through the tears.

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