Reality Blows: The Best and Worst of Gen-X Flicks
Yeah, okay, I’m definitely a few years beyond the Generation-X cutoff, but it doesn’t mean I can’t enjoy movies about our favorite late-’80s and ’90s outcasts, slackers and burnouts.
Right now, I’m writing a series of reviews of Gen-X movies, regardless of whether they’re good or not. And I’m playing the professor and assigning letter grades to each movie…something I almost never do.
To kick things off, I watched Reality Bites, a movie that’s supposedly all about Generation-X, a week ago. I sort of remember giving it a spin a few years back and, at the time, I thought it was pretty damn funny and perceptive.
My current (and less favorable) assessment:
Reality Bites (1994)
Reality Bites, Ben Stiller’s directorial debut, is an unworthy Gen-X staple, a mostly cliché story of four Houston college grads who wander out of graduation into dead-end jobs. While its opening third is perceptive and funny, it ultimately becomes just another formulaic study of young adults trying to find themselves and fall in love in a mean corporate world.
The pic stars Winona Ryder as Lelaina, valedictorian of her college class, who, armed at all times with a video camera, obsessively films all her friends being “spontaneous.” They include the sharp-tongued slacker musician Troy (Ethan Hawke), the funny and sensitive Vicki (Jeneane Garofalo) and the shy Sammy (Steve Zahn).
Though Lelaina works as an associate producer on a morning talk show, her real passion is the documentary she’s crafting about her friends. She hopes her film, chock full of dime-store insight about relationships and consumerism, will paint an authentic picture of her generation.
The characters have fun with Lelaina’s camera in early scenes, drinking beers, smoking pot and saying whatever comes to mind on top of a Houston skyscraper. This scene, in an unfamiliar location, really works, and I connected with the new grads and enjoyed listening to the way they talked.
In the following minutes, I was excited about where the picture seemed to be going. The friends really understand each other and enjoy each other‘s company. Even as they drink beer, get stoned and end up in a gas station screaming the words to “My Sharona,” I got a delightful chill of recognition. If the film wasn’t trying to be life-changing at this point, I really didn’t care. I was having a whole lot of fun watching the characters having fun with each other.
Unfortunately, this unforced charm doesn’t last when the movie starts to take itself way too seriously.
Soon, Lelaina decides to start filming heavy stuff–Vicki gets an AIDS test, Sammy tells his mom he‘s gay, Troy blathers on about his father and being and nothingness. The documentary (and Stiller’s film), at this point, become a whole lot less compelling.
This footage becomes one of the film‘s major problems. Though Lelaina’s supposed to be capturing what it’s “really like” to be a 23-year old circa 1994, it appears that her friends, in their ever-increasing melancholy, are just posturing for the camera. In due time, there’s not a hint of spontaneity or excitement in the whole production, and at its lowest point, everyone sounds like they’re reading lines straight from a teleprompter.
These characters also swiftly wear out their welcome when a love triangle between Lelaina, Troy, and Michael (Ben Stiller), a successful music channel producer, takes shape. Even after Lelaina and Michael have a great meet-cute, the film loses energy fast.
This romance becomes dull real quick because the “hero” of the movie, Troy, progressively turns into a bigger asshole with each passing moment. We know that Troy likes Lelaina a lot, but, because he’s so sarcastic and degrades anyone that dares to challenge his philosophies on life, we start to dislike him immensely.
Think about it: if you want to write a compelling romance, you can’t expect your audience to root for a guy who, by midway through the picture, is reduced to an unemployed insult-spewing prick.
Scriptwriter Helen Childress should never have let Troy devolve into such an unlikable guy, especially in a romantic comedy. While he’s as judgmental as Jack Black’s character in High Fidelity, he’s rarely as charming or funny. We’re supposed to somehow perceive that Troy, because he usually forgets to shave, is super vulnerable. Hawke’s character’s been so underwritten that, when he finally lets some emotion show in the film’s final five minutes, it feels entirely phony.
Another crucial mistake is the handling of Ben Stiller’s studio exec character (perplexing, since he directed the picture).
Convention, in lesser Gen-X films like Reality Bites, dictates that he must be a sellout because has a career and wears suits to work. Since he lacks the infinite spare time to memorize all of Paul Newman’s lines in Cool Hand Luke, he‘s supposedly a phony.
Yet, I think Stiller’s character is the best written in the entire picture. He’s by far the most interesting and sympathetic of the cast and not the yuppie shark the movie tries to make him out to be. Despite his corporate gig, he still acts insecure, and questions his own motives in chasing certain success. The scenes that Lelaina and Michael share together are great, especially a couple in which he tries nervously to articulate his feelings for her. We’re praying he and Lelaina end up together, but–oh, hell, who am I kidding? You know what happens.
Reality Bites, not a God-awful film, is brightened at times by the charm of its young actors, especially Winona Ryder and Ben Stiller. Watching it, I constantly saw untapped potential–the casting and the scenes that were obviously written with a great ear for the way people my age talk come to mind. It’s Childress’ unwillingness to take chances with her characters that makes this a disappointing, but occasionally funny Gen-X movie.