The title of Reality Bites is a two-headed pun. On one level, it means what it says: Reality sucks. On the other level, it’s a play on “sound bites” — reality bites, I gather, are the MTV-style documentaries (like The Real World) that serve easily chewable morsels of “reality.” Both meanings apply to the movie itself, which uses bites of reality to demonstrate that reality bites. This is the sort of stuff that occupies your mind as you leave the theater, for lack of much else to chew over.
Credit where credit is due: Reality Bites isn’t infantile, nor is it stupid or actively bad. Uncommon intelligence has gone into it; if only that intelligence didn’t play more like corporate shrewdness. Kids enjoy love triangles? We’ll give ’em one. Kids liked the hip alternative-rock cameos in Singles? Call Dave Pirner and Evan Dando. Kids liked Slacker, which was set in Austin? Let’s put this one in Houston. Kids love Winona Ryder and Ethan Hawke? Sign ’em up. Kids dig ’70s nostalgia? For God’s sake, don’t let a scene go by without a knowing reference to Good Times, Planet of the Apes, Schoolhouse Rock, The Brady Bunch, on and on and on….
The “kids,” of course, are Generation X (talkin’ ’bout my generation!), the demographic cluster born between 1961 and 1972. Reality Bites is the brainchild of two Gen-Xers — director Ben Stiller and screenwriter Helen Childress, both making their feature debuts — and boasts a cast full of them, including Stiller, who had his own variety show on Fox for about three seconds (enough time to snag an Emmy). Comparisons are inevitable: Slacker and Singles were there first and had the newly minted appeal of freshness. I give those movies high marks, but they’re snapshots of a generation that doesn’t even have its own identity. I guess I’m tired of Gen-X movies that are as aimless and derivative as Gen-X itself is accused of being (thou shalt judge a culture by its art), and Reality Bites is no exception.
The outline, briefly: Having just graduated valedictorian of her college class, Lelaina (Ryder) begins work on a video documentary of her friends, who all have either McJobs or no jobs. She hopes to sell this “video journal” to PBS, but until then her life becomes a blur of settling: she settles into an apartment and settles for a hack job on a local talk show. Her roomie Vickie (Janeane Garofalo) goes through men like Kleenex and sees no future beyond her manager position at the Gap. Their friend Sammy (Steve Zahn), a gentlemanly, amiable goof, pops in and out of their apartment for moral support. Another friend, Troy (Hawke), moves into the pad over Lelaina’s protests. A slacker extraordinaire, Troy majored in philosophy and now fronts a justifiably obscure bar band.
Troy is the polar opposite of Michael (Stiller), a yuppie pup who thinks Lelaina’s project is perfect for his network, In Your Face. The blandly pleasant Michael, who drops references like “I know why the caged bird sings” without knowing why the caged bird sings, and the sullen Troy, who uses his intelligence to cut everyone else down, fight for Lelaina’s affections. Actually, fight isn’t the word; that would imply passion, something alien to Gen-X movies. It’s obvious what the guys see in Lelaina — Winona Ryder is playing her, after all — but what she sees in either of them, well, your guess is better than mine. Screenwriter Childress may intend Troy and Michael as the duelling yin-yang of Lelaina’s nature, which recoils at compromise but also at inertia. She wants to make her mark without selling her soul. Not easy. Reality bites.
When it rings that elusive bell in your head that says “I’ve been there,” Reality Bites scores highest. Childress nails the verbal junk that passes for talk between potheads — those glazed, circular discussions that find profound meaning in everything. Another dead-on detail is the decor of Lelaina’s apartment; the rooms are done up in the cluttered, cool-things-I-like-to-look-at motif that has become Gen-X chic. (Michael’s pad looks untouched by human hands.) Vickie’s relationship with Sammy is as comfortable as an old shoe and just as sexual, like so many friendships between intimacy-shy people of opposite genders. (This part of the movie loses steam when Sammy turns out to be gay; he becomes a slacker version of that new cliché, the Friendly Gay Neighbor.)
The movie is smoothly acted (particularly by Ryder and Garofalo) except for Hawke, who’s monotonously antagonistic, and anyone over thirty. Directed by a 28-year-old and written by a 23-year-old, Reality Bites is as guilty of indiscriminate adult-bashing as any John Hughes movie. John Mahoney is capable of far more subtlety (in Say Anything, for instance) than the hee-hawing performance he gives here, as the clownish talk-show host who hires Lelaina as an assistant. As Lelaina’s clueless divorced parents, Swoosie Kurtz and Joe Don Baker embarrass everyone who has defended them as intelligent actors. These youth movies (Say Anything is an exception) discourage respect for elders because the elders in them, as written, encourage contempt. Add the insinuation that anyone who came of age in the ’60s is a sell-out, and the movie begins to seem slick and flattering to the do-nothings in the young audience, who reject the activism of the ’60s in favor of the passivity of the ’90s.
I won’t reveal the ending, but Lelaina must choose between the two men in her life, neither of whom is a prize. Michael is kind but empty; Troy is “deep” but a womanizing, superior jerk. (Sammy is the most appealing male on the screen: a denatured, neutered man — a non-practicing homosexual.) I didn’t want Lelaina to end up with either guy, but I especially didn’t want her to end up with the one she ends up with; he comes sniffing around after a family crisis, hoping to be taken back, and she, the dummy, takes him back. That has to be the final gruesome blow to Reality Bites: When you have an actress like Winona Ryder, who can connect with us so strongly that we practically consider her a sister, you don’t set her up with a guy we wouldn’t want marrying our sister.