There’s a vague sense of cruelty to the direct-to-DVD market, which is used to solely accommodate cheap genre products, but more often seems like a dumping ground for unusual niche projects that die a slow death on the festival circuit. They usually get treated much like the aptly titled “American Loser,” a dramatic half-comedy with Seann William Scott that went through a number of title changes before being dumped onto the market. The film now carries a title that not only insults the lead character, and by extension Scott (who has experimented a few times in risky projects that ended up with negligible releases), but it cravenly attempts to exploit the brand name for which he is known, “American Pie.”
What’s more, “American Loser” is a true story, one that is equal parts tragic and frustrating. ‘Loser’ is based on an unpublished memoir by standup comedian Jeff Nichols (not to be confused with the same-name director behind “Take Shelter”), a career underachiever with a fairly tragic life. It wasn’t enough that Jeff had attention deficit disorder, he had to also have Tourette’s. It wasn’t enough that Jeff was learning disabled, he had also become an alcoholic. When you absorb a personality like this outside of real life, whether it be through film or a book, it’s near-impossible to connect with such a walking contradiction. The only certainty you can draw from the film is that Nichols wants to do the right thing. Beyond that, he’s a victim of circumstance, trapped by his own inefficiencies, which seem to go beyond normal diagnosis. You can’t reason with this person because they can’t even reason with themselves. It’s heart-breaking, really.
The film complicates this issue because it stems from Nichols’ own recollections. It’s admirable that the real life person was able to channel these remembrances into a career, using them as comedic fodder. But in film form, it’s difficult to reconcile this light, bouncy tone and late coming-of-age framework with a fairly dark tale of repeated, ongoing failure. Scott’s Nichols is a likeable enough guy who wants to do right by his family and friends, but, somewhat enabled by rich Upper East Side parents, he proceeds to torpedo every opportunity with manic, maladjusted behavior that results in property damage, major financial ruin, and misplaced trust.
When he’s put in charge of a classroom as a substitute teacher, the situation devolves into yelling matches. When serving as captain of his own boat, he freely drinks and capsizes the vessel when his attention wanders. “American Loser” begins, oddly enough, with Nichols now ten years sober. The structure, to use the term loosely, is confounding, since alcohol is only one of many problems in his life. This is a very conventional take on a somewhat unconventional life, with director Tod Harrison Williams pacing the film like a television show, all predictable emotional beats and therapeutic breakthroughs, alongside supporting actors hitting their marks with predictably, theoretically catchphrase-worthy reactions.
They’ve also saddled poor Nichols with a love interest, in this case played by Gretchen Mol. She plays a sympathetic fellow AA member who doesn’t seem to have any real life problems stemming from alcohol abuse, though her taste in men does seem fairly suspect. She starts seeing Nichols for casual sex, though she’s engaged to another man, but the film glosses over how anything can be casual with the constantly dis-associative Nichols while the two of them are in bed. If it gives you an idea of how simple things can go wrong with Nichols, consider that one bedroom tryst ends prematurely when Nichols leaves a fecal stain on her sheets.
When not getting kicked out of every room he enters, Nichols is sharing heart-to-hearts with AA sponsor Lenny (Jeff Garlin), and through all this madness, it’s a touching relationship, knowing that Lenny is the only person willing to offer sympathy for Nichols’ outbursts. Eventually, Lenny carves out some space for Nichols to crash, and while it’s stunning that he doesn’t set the place on fire, it allows for the characters to have a common ground, actual human interaction that contrasts with the somewhat abstract trouble spots that Nichols encounters.
“American Loser” clearly comes from a very personal place, and Scott’s performance is commendable. Known as wacky comic relief early in his career, Scott struggled to play straight man while attempting more dramatic roles. His Satanic arched eyebrow was jackass shorthand for an entire generation weaned on the “American Pie” movies, and to see him mostly clean-shaven and attempting to be a sympathetic figure in middling stuff like “Mr. Woodcock” cut his hot streak very short. While this is a much more dramatic role for him, Scott’s natural hyperactivity is a good match for Nichols, as he fails miserably at multi-tasking. You believe that he would fail to walk and chew gum at the same time, but Scott helps you understand that he would keep trying and hate himself for failing, maybe even seeing his own skill deteriorate. It’s a very human portrayal, as he makes Nichols’ mental lapses seem fairly understandable.
Scott, at this point a fairly experienced actor, understood that he would have to make an irrational-seeming man into a rational, relatable person. But “American Loser” never finds a groove, veering from comedy to drama within the same instance and, often, never truly committing. Scott, known to be an onscreen cut-up, stays poker-faced through a number of embarrassing situations, but the film acts if he’s hamming it up, capturing him at multiple angles and laying on the disasters cruelly with punline precision. This emphasis disguises what the title can promise: “American Loser” suggests a universal approach, a better understand of our faults as we try to make life easier for those around us and only make things worse. Instead, one of the film’s former titles seems more appropriate: “Trainwreck.” [C-]
“American Loser” hits DVD on September 27th.