The Age of Diminished Expectations has invaded American cinema.
Junk-food grillers and servers, factory security guards, coffee shop waitresses, laundry hands and video store clerks - all those kids with dead-end jobs, in fact - can now savor their lives and dreams as fictionalized and sometimes glamorized in youth-market films.
The discovery that life after high school is pretty much the same as life during high school - you just get to spend more hours bagging or stocking groceries - does not necessarily condemn the minimum-wage earner to the slow track. Or so the movies suggest. Many, but not all, tales of losers have happy endings.
Seemingly, the surest key to success would be the video clerk position. When she escapes to Sydney in “Muriel’s Wedding,” the toothy, buxom heroine played by Toni Collette manages to land a job in a video store. Muriel’s position tending the vid racks introduces her to her first boyfriend and sets off a change in her life that leads to fame and independence, with a brief fling with fortune as well. (Real life also has tended to treat the video clerk well. Quentin Tarantino, the world’s hottest young director and writer - “Pulp Fiction,” “Natural Born Killers” - spent day after day shelving videos, and watching them by day and night.)
Losers began to emerge as heroes in the late ‘80s as it became clear that the Age of Greed had produced a false-front economy awash in junk bonds and failed savings and loans. Much more successful, but more tangentially related to the movement, is “Say Anything …,” featuring John Cusack but in a much more boyish mode. Kids fell in love with Cameron Crowe’s 1989 portrayal of the unlikely romance between Ione Skye’s straight-A student and Cusack’s loser, who had just drifted through school but thought kick boxing might be his future. In the end, it was implied that they lived happily ever after. One has to wonder, though, just what his fairy-tale trip to England finally brought to Cusack’s Lloyd Dobler. Did the relationship with brainy Diane Court last?
As the ‘80s ended and the ‘90s began, the loser eventually supplanted the neurotic loner as the young American antihero. Richard
Linklater’s low-budget “Slacker,” the 1991 group portrait of underemployed young folk in Austin, Texas, is a cult film that jumps from loser to loser. James Monaco’s “The Movie Guide” smartly summarizes the field: “street musicians, espresso czars, co-op kids, sidewalk psychics, paranoid hitchhikers, disgruntled grad students, anti-artists, cafe philosophers, petty thieves, anarchists, post-modernists, dropouts and freaks - slackers all.”
But the supernova in the galaxy of Generation X losers would have to be the 1992 “Wayne’s World,” whose heroes compensate for their nothing lives with their nutty cable access show. Already cult heroes by virtue of their bits on “Saturday Night Live,” Mike Myers’ cocky Wayne Campbell and Dana Carvey’s dreamy Garth Algar zoomed to movie stardom under the knowing direction of Penelope Spheeris, whose surreal 1983 “Suburbia” had drawn a much darker portrait of dropout youths.
Other portraits of Generation Xers in nowhere jobs are somewhat more serious. The 1994 “Clerks” is an ultra low-budget effort by Kevin Smith, a New Jersey convenience store clerk. Smith takes a bleak look into a day in the lives of the kids who man the Quick Stop.
In the movies, losers often harbor such fantasies of minor glory. In last summer’s most touching romantic comedy, “It Could Happen to You,” Bridget Fonda gave her most engaging performance as a coffeeshop waitress whose dreams of becoming an actress have faded, even as her hopes for having a life have been smashed before her eyes. The cop played by Nicolas Cage changes all that with his lottery ticket tip, of course.
The most successful loser opus of 1994, however, has to be “Dumb and Dumber,” which casts the outrageous Jim Carrey as a soon-to-be-unemployed limousine driver and Jeff Daniels as a clientless pet groomer (two of your more original loser gigs). Together, the dummies hit the road, belatedly discovering they are carrying a suitcase full of big bills.
Johnny Depp seems irresistibly drawn to losers, with recent roles in “Benny & Joon” and “What’s Eating Gilbert Grape,” both in 1993. Last year he took on the title role in Tim Burton’s “Ed Wood,” a black-andwhite portrait of the film auteur as cross-dressing loser. That extraordinary comedy about the unstoppable and sometimes disastrous urge to create took place in that supposedly upbeat decade of the ‘50s, which just shows that losers have always been with us.
Yet in the eyes of Hollywood, losers have never been as plentiful or as pathetic as they are now. Our nation’s decline in every area but the creation of low-level jobs has created a climate where the loser has become the symbol of the new American youth.