Sad, funny and ridiculous.
Main Cast: Seann William Scott, Gretchen Mol, Jeff Garlin
Director: Tod Harrison Williams
Some actors are unfairly penalized in my mind based on an early role. Seann William Scott (in addition to having an annoying extra “n” in his first name) will be forever tainted by being Stiffler in American Pie. I know it isn’t fair. It isn’t even a horrible movie. But it’s a foul enough character, played with a distinctive enough relish to equate the actor with the role all these years later. Even with one that strike against it going in, American Loser turns out to be a truly interesting movie experience.
Scott plays Jeff Nichols. Jeff was raised in a family of means and becomes sort of a poster child for spoiled rich kids. He’s an irresponsible drunk who, even after getting sober, cannot stop screwing things up. His life is one ridiculous catastrophe after another and he continues to essentially live off his mommy. He is a grown man in the film, and still calls her Mommy.
What a loser.
But…well, yes, he is a loser. We meet him as he is going on stage to do a comedy routine and segue immediately to an AA meeting where he is sharing. Jeff does a lot of AA sharing – enough to dominate meetings with his stories of various mishaps, learning disabilities and other behavioral diagnoses, phobias and general failings. For the most part people don’t mind – he makes them feel better about their own lives. Being a ten year veteran of the program, he is a sponsor. Bad idea since, although he doesn’t drink anymore, he’s no more a functional adult than if he were. He also begins a highly dysfunctional relationship – his first relationship in years – with a girl almost as ill-equipped for life as he is. American Loser is Jeff’s story.
It sounds sort of horrible. It is sort of horrible. It’s also sort of hilarious. Jeff is very close to being a Dumb and Dumber caliber character but without the overt slapstick. He’s also a real person and American Loser (originally released in 2007 under the title Trainwreck: My Life as an Idiot) isn’t just a movie, it’s the story of a real life.
It’s hard to wrap your mind around the notion that anyone could be this stupid and survive to adulthood. With fewer financial resources Jeff would have either ended up in a group home or dead long before his life could ever be made into a film. But Mommy (played by Dierdre O’Connell) supplies him with enough money to scrape by as he gets evicted and fired and doesn’t pay his bills and sinks his step-father’s boat and is generally a clueless child.
How the hell can this be funny? I don’t really know, but it is.
Jeff’s shenanigans are so extreme that you can’t help but laugh – at him, not with him. Scott does an amazing job with this ridiculously difficult role. He’s dumb, but he’s completely without malice and he isn’t quite dumb enough to evoke pity.
He does stupid things with only good intentions, has considerable mental illness to go along with his cognitive disabilities and yet seems to be able to ride the edge of sanity convincingly enough to pass through life without being institutionalized. Barely. His relationship with the man he sponsors at AA (Jeff Garlin) is both sweet and hysterical. He can’t really help at all, but he’s there, and sometimes that’s what matters. People like Jeff as a person and Scott makes us understand how that can be when he brings them nothing but trouble.
Jeff’s real goal is to find himself, get it together and become stable so he can provide for Lynn (Gretchen Mol). He has plans. Maybe he’ll be a comedian, or a writer (albeit one with debilitating dyslexia), or a fisherman. Each endeavor is as ridiculous and unfathomable as the one before – but he’s trying in the only ways he knows how. He doesn’t know many ways.
The key to American Loser is to watch it with the understanding that you aren’t watching a badly written script; you’re watching a ridiculously inept life. In the DVD extras there is a “making of” featurette that helps illuminate the man behind the character. We meet the real Jeff and learn what it was like to make a movie based on his essentially indecipherable manuscript (his go at being a writer). It’s then that you realize that first time director (and script writer) Tod Harrison Williams just may be a genius. There are a nice handful of scenes here that are truly laugh out loud funny and that’s a result of the way they are filmed, not the things that happen. Williams manages to put this weird, messed up life into a framework that allows us to laugh and still want things to somehow work out for Jeff. Between Williams and Scott a little gem of a movie is born.
Overall American Loser is a solid tragicomedy about a real loser. A lovable, screwed up, adult child with no skills living in a world that doesn’t have a clue how helpless he really is. It’s funny, Jeff is sweet and appealing in his own weird way and the solid support of Jeff Garlin and Gretchen Mol allow Scott and Williams to bring this story of putting together a life with only a very few working parts very watchable and engaging. 4 stars out of 5.
photo by Chris Dotson