In the “Class of …” series, Nick Rogers takes a monthly look back at films celebrating either their 20th or 30th anniversary of initial release this year — six from 1994 and six from 1984. The rules: No Oscar nominees and no films among either year’s top-10 grossers.
Many years later, Reality Bites remains a stunning, vivid snapshot of Gen X tastes — revering the classics while staking its own claim with bold, brash new voices. I am, of course, referring to a terrific soundtrack, which pristinely preserves mid-’90s moods of mainstream rock, notwithstanding Ethan Hawke’s warbling as the front man of the fictional Hey, That’s My Bike.
The film that spawned it feels more formless and fuzzy now than in 1994 as the fruit of producer Michael Shamberg’s labors to make a film about “people in their 20s.” Like flannel left in Goodwill’s care long ago, my memories of it had faded. Also like flannel, it’s best left a cultural relic at which we now collectively shake our heads.
This may sound like sour grapes from someone who’s lived long enough to see himself become the villain of this story: A capitulator to the comforts of work, love and life who, pushing 40, is inherently untrustworthy. (In his studio-movie debut, cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki lights any scene with an “old” person in shadows that suggest all of them have some ulterior motive.)
But I haven’t aged out of emotions I feel during Stand By Me, Say Anything …, The Breakfast Club, Dazed and Confused or Before Sunrise. And neither have you. The fashion in those films is just as dated, but they remain timeless by refusing to tether to calendars, clocks or clothes and call it a day. They’re rooted in common coming-of-age turning points: friendship, first love, alienation and uncertainty.
Reality Bites shunts characters with the most potential to illuminate those in favor of a love triangle between Hawke, Winona Ryder and Ben Stiller. The oft-revised script by Helen Childress fancies itself a denim-drenched Pride & Prejudice when it feels like a padded-shoulder shrug. (In the film’s defense, it’s just a profoundly dumb romantic comedy, not a generational cornerstone, much as the oft-reviled HBO series Girls doesn’t necessarily stand or speak for entire swaths of young people.)
This was also Stiller’s debut as a feature-film director. Gone is any of the fearless savagery he smuggled into his eponymous Fox TV series. Stuck between slacker and attacker, he instead settles for a curiously inert, slavishly mainstream confection — the phoniness of which its characters might talk shit about between bong rips. Large swaths of what come before feel like a painfully drawn-out student film.
Although the film’s beloved legacy as the encapsulation of an entire generation’s ethos baffles me, I think that has little to do with the film itself.
Childress hasn’t produced a script since Reality Bites, although there exists a persistent threat of some sort of TV adaptation. While I think she’s full of it when she insists “I often forget I wrote it,” the thing that jogs her memory (as explained in HitFix’s exhaustive oral history) really gets at the movie’s ubiquity.
Telling is Childress’s recollection that hearing “Stay” by Lisa Loeb & Nine Stories reminds her that she had anything to do with the movie. Even if you’ve never seen Reality Bites, you’ve heard “Stay” a million times. You’ll remember it. Trust me. It’s allegedly in the film, but I couldn’t tell where, and the movie’s grand emotional apex is set to U2’s “All I Want is You,” originally released six years earlier.
Reality Bites made $20 million at the box office, which covered the $11.5 million budget but barely outgunned Cameron Crowe’s similar Singles from 1992. But “Stay”, along with Big Mountain’s Top 40-ready reggaefication of Peter Frampton’s “Baby, I Love Your Way,” propelled the soundtrack to five-times platinum sales. Even low-balling the average price of CDs at $10, that’s $50 million.
Thus, I theorize that people love Reality Bites as the source of classic songs from seminal moments in their youth, giving the movie cultural immortality by association with high-school dances and dorm-room sex. At least I hope so; otherwise, I’d say people who put it on a pedestal haven’t watched it in 15 years.
Its sharpest, funniest and most trenchantly observed moment starts and ends with its title — namely when and how it’s introduced in the opening credits. Valedictorian and would-be videographer Lelaina (Ryder) is delivering her graduation speech, a chest-thumping diatribe against consumerism, corporate culture and how her generation refuses to be swallowed up by either one.
“What are we going to do now?,” she asks. “How can we repair all the damage we inherited? Fellow graduates, the answer is simple.” As she fumbles for a close and settles for an “I don’t know,” the film’s title appears beneath Ryder’s face.
Without much cynicism, the moment acknowledges at what the wizened know and what the upstarts may be afraid to admit: Most of us can make things better for ourselves and those in our sphere whom we love, but solving the ills of the larger world continue to prove elusive.
A shame, then, that the following 98 minutes chew over nothing so bittersweet, favoring dialogue that sounds like Diablo Cody in the death throes of studio-note strangulation.
- “Troy, aren’t you excited?”
“I’m bursting with fruit flavor!”
- “I just do not understand why this moment has to be Memorexed.”
- “Vickie, he will turn this place into a den of slack.”
- “You’re on the inside track to Loserville, U.S.A.”
Moments of real vulnerability, honesty or anything resembling identifiable human emotion are rare in the “maxi pad” — where Lelaina lives with Vickie (Janeane Garofalo), who finds more fulfillment as a Gap manager than she expected, and Sammy (Zahn), a gay man struggling to find the right way to come out to his parents.
Vickie is casually promiscuous, logging her encounters in a journal before the sheets are cold. But she eventually fears AIDS, for which she gets a test at a free clinic. Garofalo taps her trademark withering wit to deflect the anxiety with which Vickie awaits her results. But the movie never lets her confront the complex idea that her future may be ruined once she’s realized she’s maybe found one worth building because she’s great at retail. Likewise, a clash with Lelaina over what she believes to be Vickie’s corporate sellout is smoothed over with nary a mention of how. (On a side note, Universal pushed Stiller to cast Gwyneth Paltrow as Vickie, but he insisted on Garofalo, whom he later briefly fired during filming before reconsidering.)
Zahn says he can’t remember any other scenes he had to “work on” other than Sammy’s coming-out confessional. That’s because there are no other scenes of note for him to nail, and we don’t even really see this one. We never get to see Sammy’s revelation to his parents — the only thing by which the movie defines him. In a year when MTV’s The Real World chronicled a homosexual man’s multifaceted life, as well as the brutal swiftness with which AIDS ravaged it, Sammy comes off as nothing more than a notch in a demographic belt.
The movie’s shapelessness is not its problem; Hawke and Richard Linklater have made an Oscar-nominated career out of shapeless. It’s the lack of substance in lieu of love-triangle tropes for Lelaina, who’s making a documentary about her circle of friends while she’s stranded on the low rung of the media ladder.
The first guy she shows a thing for is Michael, played by Stiller, who, in his pre-dental-work days, was a dead ringer for Jay Baruchel). He’s a college dropout turned programming executive for In Your Face TV (“It’s like MTV, with an edge!”).
Michael stands out as the movie’s lone sincere figure — someone who has arguably endured enlightening stumbles and struggles in life. But the script stubbornly refuses to offer him any bittersweet definition by insisting that he become a corporate-tool villain when it’s most convenient.
That’s because he crassly commercializes Lelaina’s documentary for cable TV, a cheap shot with no sting because her footage is perilously one-dimensional already. And his genuine attempt at making things right is brushed off as an insincere attempt at buying her off. Parts of it feel like Childress, or someone who punched up her script, are exorcising bad-breakup moments and Stiller, desperate to break through as a director, didn’t stand up to Michael’s descent into caricature.
Then there’s Troy, Lelaina’s sanctimonious, opinionated and oft-unemployed roundabout college buddy who comes to crash with her, Vickie and Sammy. It is no surprise that Troy — between his bluster and bullshit — blurts out plainspoken love for Lelaina. That he thinks she’s an anchor for his rudderless journey shows how inexperienced he really is. (I like to think Troy ran off a year after the events of Bites, changed his name to Jesse and became the fascinating font of existential wonderment we saw in Before Sunrise.)
That brings us to Lelaina, a presumptuous asshole whom the movie so, so, so wrongheadedly believes is the triumphant hero of the story — an artist whose chronicle is compromised. It might be Ryder’s worst role, even accounting for Autumn in New York.
No complaint elicits a bigger eye-roll than that about a lack of likable characters in entertainment. When, exactly, did we develop the thin-skinned expectation that we have to like the people in our fiction? Conflicted? Petty? Uncertain? Cruel? That just makes it real. Lelaina is all of those things, and we’ve likely all met people like her. But she’s simply not compelling, and a lack of interesting characters cannot stand.
As the central figure of the movie, she’s a drip, redefining herself in every millisecond of every conversation. She has no point of view to call her own; even the inflamed convictions of her graduation speech as prefab as those who came before her. Does the movie use that as a springboard to form her own views or at least make strides toward doing so? Rather than confront any appreciable truth about how difficult that is when you’re young, the movie settles for the simplistic Successorization of “All you have to be by the age of 23 is yourself.”
Apparently, that means she’s an impulsive flibbertigibbet who leaves an indeterminate trail of emotional destruction in her wake. So was Mavis Gary, whom Diablo Cody wrote in Young Adult, but we saw the deeply etched pain in her inability to change. Falling back on a graceless, self-absorbed cackle, Ryder seems like she’s killing time until the soft-focus love scenes with Hawke rather than offering any insight as to Lelaina’s infantile behavior. (That Ryder frequently cited “the chance to wear jeans” after period pieces as what drew her to Bites indicates the fatally relaxed fit this usually focused actress provided here.)
Looking back at it, Stiller says the film is not cynical. He’s absolutely right. But it’s not really anything now or then, other than a delivery system for a few big-selling songs. To paraphrase another product of the 1990s, it feels like it’s always stuck in second gear, and it hasn’t held up for days or weeks or months, or even for years.