Cheaters Never Win

Even with Schwartzman, Slackers swindles its audience

It's astonishing just how open Screen Gems has been about showing Slackers to the reviewing press well in advance of deadlines. Dim, youth-oriented sex comedies like this often slip into theaters under cover of darkness. Not that critical appraisal really matters to such films; if it did, Freddie Prinze Jr. would be working along Santa Monica Boulevard rather than on the big screen. The fact that a studio actually wants critics to see their college movie would seem like a good sign, especially since it features Rushmore star Jason Schwartzman in his first major role since that rightfully acclaimed 1999 Wes Anderson comedy.

Alas, Slackers sucks. It's so wretched, Schwartzman can't save it, though he tries mightily. A flash of nudity from Pearl Harbor babe and male-named model-turned-actress James King isn't even worth the price of a video rental down the line. There's the occasional noble attempt at deflating some teen-movie stereotypes, but they're undermined by a way-too-predictable climax in which the lovelorn hero makes a heartfelt plea to his lady love in front of a large audience that bursts into applause. No, never seen that before.

The fundamental problem is one of audience identification, and the leads are all disagreeable. We're introduced to protagonists who pass the time by cheating: Dave (Idle Hands' Devon Sawa), the confident pretty face; Sam (Freaks and Geeks' Jason Segel), the mastermind; and Jeff (Michael C. Maronna, who played Stuart in the Ameritrade ads), the weirdo. They've reached their senior year by arranging elaborate scams that eliminate the need for any actual studying and instead require such a degree of deception that they don't have any close friends other than one another. That's not much of a problem: The trio hasn't yet realized there's more to life than junk food and video games.

But a woman comes along to screw up the male bonding. While taking an exam on Sam's behalf, Dave breaks protocol and gives out his phone number to a looker named Angela (King). His action catches the eye of hyperactive nerd "Cool Ethan" (Schwartzman), who's obsessed with Angela. Ethan confronts the cheaters and threatens to expose them unless they hook him up with the dream girl. Elaborate schemes ensue, and as traditionally happens in such films, the nerd eventually catches the eye of the object of his desire.

There is a slight twist. Ethan appears amiable at first but is swiftly revealed as a deranged stalker with a massive shrine to Angela in his house, complete with a collection of her hair woven into a doll. Though he's very amusing, deadpanning lines such as, "I like you; I'll probably give you a nickname," he becomes impossible to root for once his unhinged side is revealed.

Which leaves us with the slackers for sympathetic characters, and they're not a real fun bunch. Sam's a whiny recluse, Jeff's a flatulent dead ringer for Spin Doctors frontman Chris Barron, and Dave's the epitome of the average college girl's poor taste in men -- a slick hustler whose good looks and occasional flashes of sincerity justify his emptiness. It's impossible for us to hope he gets together with Angela. The movie may offer a more credible scenario than standard revenge-of-the-nerd fare, but the leads have to be more likable than this if we're to relate or care.

Director Dewey Nicks, a former fashion photographer, desperately wants to make an artistic statement, with images of neckties hanging from trees and endless fantasy sequences, the likes of which didn't work in Marc Levin's Danny Hoch vehicle Whiteboys and don't work here, despite cameos from Gina Gershon and Cameron Diaz (if you must see this movie, at least stay after the credits to see a Diaz outtake funnier than anything in the script). Writer David H. Steinberg (responsible for the far-superior American Pie 2) allegedly based this on his own experiences at Yale, though you wouldn't think he'd want to admit it even if it were true. Desperate for substance, he finally resorts to gratuitous gross-out gags that don't seem particularly shocking in the wake of the Farrelly brothers and Tom Green. They serve only to make the characters even less likable. Only Laura Prepon, Donna on That '70s Show, emerges relatively unscathed in a complete change-of-pace role as the bad-girl roommate who's into bondage.

Schwartzman, on the other hand, needs to start worrying about typecasting and choosing decent projects, unless he'd rather just play drums for a living. Since his band, Phantom Planet, is signed to Geffen Records, maybe he doesn't have the time to care about film roles. Shame.

 
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