February 9, 2017
Reality Bites – US, 1994
I was 21 when Ben Stiller’s Reality Bites hit theaters, and the buzz about the film was that it was my generation’s The Graduate. Having not seen that film at that time, I had no idea what that meant, yet when I finally saw it, I had no inclination to give Stiller’s film a try. To me, The Graduate was a moderately successful film about a slacker who wasn’t entirely likeable who begins an affair with an older woman who is also not that likeable. I gave it three stars, and since then haven’t really given it much thought. That is, until I finally watched Reality Bites.
Like The Graduate, Reality Bites is also about a slacker, four of them actually. The lead character is Lelaina Pierce (Winona Ryder), college valedictorian and aspiring filmmaker, and if that makes slacker an odd description for her, consider this: While reading her graduation speech on flash cards, she suddenly realizes she has misplaced the final card, and wouldn’t you know it, that card had her vision for what her entire generation can do with the world they inherit. Now something that potentially earth-shattering would normally be etched in someone’s mind, but Lelaina gets tongue tied, fumbles through her notes, and then says that the answer to what they can do is…”I don’t know.” She is cheered for the remark.
Making up the rest of her group are Troy Dyer (Ethan Hawke), a man who practically boasts of having lost twelve jobs in just a few years; Vickie Miner (Janeane Garofalo), a woman who keeps a record of every person she has slept with and their names – when she knows them, at least; and Sammy Gray (Steve Zahn), a young gay man who is in so little of the film that I honestly can’t remember much about him other than an unresolved story line involving him coming out to his mother. In Lelaina’s eyes, the four of them are part of a generation that has no role models and no heroes, one that is desperately trying to find itself.
There is indeed a story to be told about this generation, about a generation of children with divorced parents and massive college debt. This generation grew up during the end of the Cold War, watched both the Challenger explode and nuclear bombs fall in The Day After, and look on as the first Gulf War started just as they were of age to be sent to fight if the draft were reinstated. They were young when Michael Jackson’s Thriller took the world by storm, and they were also around when it turned to grunge and the likes of Pearl Jam and Nirvana. They were around for Tom Cruise’s and Julia Roberts’s meteoric ascent, as well as for the shock that was the arrival of the independent film movement. They, like every generation before them, thought they could change the world.
There’s is certainly a story worth telling. Reality Bites just isn’t the film to tell it. Too much of that generation seems like an afterthought. For example, AIDS, like homosexuality, is brought up briefly and dropped without anything resembling a resolution. Instead, the film elects to focus on a love triangle and to try to say something important through that. To do this, it pits a yuppie (upper class, working, somewhat dismissive of those that are still trying to figure it all out, but overall nice guy) against a slacker (middle class, musician, too cool for school, and jerk) in a duel for the love of Lelaina, because what all generational conflicts come down to in the end is a contest for the love of a woman straddling both sides of a struggle – sarcasm intended. In this story line, Ben Stiller, playing a TV executive named Michael Grates, is Ethan Hawke’s foil. One guess who the audience is suppose to see as the better alternative.
Reality Bites plods along rather uneventfully. There are the occasional bursts of energy, such as a spontaneous dance number inside a convenience store that may be what the film is best known for and some heartfelt and telling moments that Lelaina captures on film, my favorite of which explained why many people I knew growing up at least initially rejected the idea of getting married. However, these moments are few and far between, and they are merely the backdrop for a story that becomes increasingly less interesting and more predictable as the film progresses. By the end, I simply didn’t care. How could I when the film’s last moments include a message in which Lelaina’s father is heard on an answering machine asking why there’s a $900 gas bill on the card he gave Lelaina and pays every month. I suppose we’re supposed to laugh. He doesn’t know he’s financing her new apartment, the poor sap. That’ll get him back for being such a bad father. On their side yet? I wasn’t. Good soundtrack, though. (on DVD and Blu-ray)