This is the true story of four friends who decided to live together in a house, and have their lives taped by the one who considers herself a “videographer” to find out what happens when people stop being polite…and start getting really, really obnoxious. Reality Bites: It sure does!
Okay, full disclaimer: We are two snot-nosed members of Generation Y. The film was not made for us. We have no emotional attachment to it. But even though Reality Bites looks incredibly dated now — let’s be honest, it was dated one year after its initial 1994 release — we both found the movie fascinating. It’s essentially a time capsule constructed entirely of flannel, denim, Big Gulps and pre-corporate alt-rock. At the center of the film is Winona Ryder, an actress who more or less defined her generation. Ryder has small roles in two current films — she’s a cheating wife in The Dilemma and an extremely Winona-esque dancer in Black Swan — and given Ryder’s difficult career arc in the last decade, you could argue that Reality Bites looks even more melancholy now, a vision of youth in all its naive idiot glory. Or maybe it’s just a film about naive idiots.
Keith Staskiewicz: Ethan Hawke’s Troy is unable to hold any job, however menial, for fear that it would somehow render him inauthentic. I think it’s also what makes him so difficult to relate to for us. When this movie came out, it was just an accepted fact that his smoldering intellectualism and posturing was attractive. Now, he just comes off as pouty and condescending. I mean, he mistreats poor Winona, mooches off of her, and looks down his nose at people who listen to Peter Frampton despite the fact that his band isn’t much better.
Darren Franich: I find it absurd that anyone who’s not a masochist would find Troy attractive. He’s supposed to be a café-rock golden god, but he seems more like a Depression-era hobo. At one point, Troy is fired from his newsstand job for shoplifting, because, and I quote, “The establishment owes him a Snickers.” The establishment created the Snickers! Why does it owe you anything? And shouldn’t you hate Snickers, anyways, because it was created by the establishment?
KS: But you could argue that the movie does level some pretty accurate criticisms at Troy-like people.
DF: All movies in the Reality Bites genre — post-college “existential” movies with great soundtracks, like The Graduate, St. Elmo’s Fire, and Garden State — simultaneously deconstruct and exalt their generation. That’s why The Graduate looks good no matter how old you are: It’s either the perfect portrait of suburban boredom or a hilarious farce about a stupid kid who just can’t get a job, already. But Reality Bites has an added depth of generational particularity that those other movies lack. The screenplay is filled with nonstop references to pop culture and merchandise. You almost feel as if you’re watching a parody of a Generation X movie. Is Reality Bites an ironic film about irony? Does that make it sincere?
KS: Which is also a key question in the movie, when the newspaper lady asks Winona Ryder to define irony. And remember, this was 1994, so it was before “like rain on your wedding day” would be an acceptable answer. Here’s the thing: I’m not sure it’s accurate to expect the ultimate Gen X film to be covered in irony. Sarcasm, sure, they mastered that. But I always thought that Gen X was more defined by the need to be “real” or “authentic,” as opposed to being kitsch-obsessed or trapped in an Internet meme-fueled eternal return of repurposed ironies like us folks.
DF: Keith, all this talk about reality and authenticity is making my head hurt. But it’s part of the reason why Reality Bites is actually a frustrating viewing experience. All of the characters rail against the mainstream, but they also seem to desperately desire to conquer the mainstream. Nobody’s talking about joining the Peace Corps, you know?
KS: It’s true, and that makes the characters seem insufferable. Look at Lelaina, Winona’s character. She wants to be in media, but she sabotages her job at a well-known early show and alienates her presumably well-connected boss just because he’s a jerk. She has no money, but when her friend offers her a job at the Gap where she works, she turns up her nose. She’s a documentarian, not some worker bee! Then she snottily asks her mother for money, and when her mom has the audacity to suggest that she get a job at a burger place for the time being, she makes a face as if she had just proposed she go spelunking in an outhouse. And finally, despite all her education, she is under-qualified to work at a hot dog stand (!) so she defrauds her father out of hundreds of dollars with a gas-station scheme.
DF: That gas station scheme is supposed to be hilarious — screw you, old man! But actually, this is exactly the kind of thing that caused the all the financial problems of the last decade. Instead of creating anything, she’s just moving cash around, and claiming a profit on it. So thanks for causing the Recession, Winona Ryder.
KS: We sound like a couple of sixty-year-old men expatiating at Thanksgiving about kids these days. But seriously, kids these days! Get a job young lady! If you want to be an actual filmmaker, I don’t know, maybe try finding subjects who aren’t you and your closest friends.
DF: Yeah, it’s a little hard to feel sorry for her when the “sell-out” version of her movie is kinda better than hers.
KS: I’ve been thinking: Maybe the reason the “sell-out” In Your Face TV version of Lelaina’s project didn’t provoke all that much outrage in us is that, when compared with modern-day reality TV, it looks like a Maysles brothers documentary. I mean, no midgets, housewives, Snookis or Gosselins? Give that thing an Emmy!
DF: We’re both younger than the original intended target audience for Reality Bites, and we could spend all day trying to parse the particular differences between Generation X and Generation Y. But I think it’s also important to point out that you and I are both older than the characters in the movie. They’re playing kids fresh out of college, which certainly goes a long way towards explaining their selfishness and their general dissatisfaction with the world. If you get past the notion that the characters in Reality Bites are supposed to be these iconic generational figures, I actually think the movie does a good job of capturing post-college aimlessness.
DF: Really, all of these characters are very sad people — Janeane Garofalo is promiscuous, but only because she doesn’t want to let anyone get close to her. Steve Zahn’s barely-developed character is just coming out of the closet and is being shunned by his mom. Everyone is a child of divorce. When you think of it that way, you have to admire how Bites doesn’t necessarily try to resolve its characters’ faults. The problem is that it actually seems to put the stamp of approval on those same faults. Troy is redeemed just because his dad dies, not because he’s changed at all. He’s a douche, but now he’s a sad douche. What catharsis!
KS: I actually like this movie a lot more than it’s sounding. I just think that anyone who wasn’t in their early twenties when this came out will end up identifying more with Ben Stiller’s character. The trouble is, like Ben Braddock in The Graduate or Enid in Ghost World, I think a lot of viewers look at these characters as ideals rather than the deeply flawed, and deeply annoying, people that they are.
DF: Ryder is in the role that absolutely defined her…and, looking at her IMDb resume, might have defined her a little too well. What is it about Winona Ryder — the actress and the persona — that so completely beguiled a generation, only to so completely disappear?
KS: I think it may have been the fact that Ryder was genuinely weird. You could buy that she was a little off and interesting like the characters she played — whereas Zooey Deschanel is supposed to be an MPDG, but in real life she’d probably just bore you to death talking about crocheting and different varieties of vegan cheese. The whole shoplifting incident was so bizarre, because it doesn’t really seem like the kind of celebrity crime that would vanish your career. Charlie Sheen survives more criminal charges in the average day and he’s still the top-paid actor on television. Maybe it was more the fact that Hollywood didn’t know what to do with her once she moved out of her twenties, and so they used all that shoplifting hubbub as an excuse to down-grade her and replace her with, say, Natalie Portman. Which is essentially what happens to her character in Black Swan.
DF: Oh my god, Keith, I just realized. In Reality Bites, Winona Ryder plays a character who commits petty theft when her career is on a downswing, and in real life, Winona Ryder committed petty theft when her career was on a downswing. Also in the movie, Ben Stiller plays a genial, fabulously successful guy who has no problem completely selling out to the media in an attempt to occasionally do something interesting, and in real life he starred in Greenberg the same year he starred in Little Fockers.
DF: Are you being sarcastic?
KS: I can’t tell anymore!
Next Week: Winona 2.0 (Natalie Portman) stars in No Strings Attached, one of roughly 17 movies she’s starring in this year. We’ll return to her humble beginnings, when she was just an adorable little girl in love with a deadly assassin. Witness Luc Besson’s The Professional!