Intensities in Ten Suburbs

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Mixed Emotions: Reality Bites

Posted by Andrew Unterberger on April 20, 2007

And I thought what I felt was simple…

Take a look at that poster up there. Normally, I try to avoid posting movie poster pics for my blog, because I usually think actual screenshots from the flick are more memorable and more revealing, but in the case of Reality Bites, the poster really says it all. Ben Stiller is staring at Winona Ryder, deeply in love, while Ethan Hawke is doing a too cool quarter turn away from Ryder, pretending not to notice her presence. And Winona, she’s too busy trying to deal with her emotions to look at either of them. In the background, words like “jobs,” “relationships,” “credit cards,” and most tellingly, “movie poster” hang around, while the tagline–“A comedy about love in the 90s”–drives the point home, just in case.

So there you have it–Reality Bites in 500 pixels or less. Stiller loves Ryder and isn’t afraid to show it, Hawke loves Ryder and is deathly afraid to show it, and Ryder doesn’t have a clue what to do about either guy. Meanwhile, everything else going around in the movie is trying hard–real, real hard–to be the definitive portrait of a generation, to show exactly how every member of it feels about things like jobs, relationships and credit cards. And as for that tagline, well, the first five words of it are basically redundant–“The 90s” would’ve worked just fine as a tagline, teaser, or even a plot summary of Reality Bites.

To put it reductively, Reality Bites is a bad movie. The characters are all roundly dislikable in one way or another, the direction is light and fluffy most of the flick but turns deathly over-serious at all the wrong moments, the soundtrack is largely terrible (with a few key exceptions, which I’ll get to later), the dialogue is contrived and absolutely nothing about the movie feels genuine, including the characters’ supposed distaste for genuineness. Really, even The Cable Guy was a step up for Ben Stiller.

However, that’s not to say that it’s not interesting. Despite my distaste for just about everything about Reality Bites, I watch it just about whenever I see it on TV (including on Bravo last night, the obvious inspiration for this blog entry)–I can think of few movies offhand that I find quite as fasincating. The two main themes of the movie–the love triangle between Stiller, Ryder and Hawke, and the summation of the Gen X experience–are utterly ridiculous, and impossible to take seriously, yet I think it’d take me a senior thesis-length essay to properly explain way (but I’ll see if I can’t do it with a few thousand less words anyway).

The central love story of Reality Bites seems to be more at odds with itself than any movie since Andie and Blaine ultimately ended up leaving Duckie holding the bag at the end of Pretty in Pink. Essentially, the beautiful, confused Lelaina Pierce (Ryder) has herself a choice between two sutiors, Michael (Stiller) and Troy (Hawke). Michael is an up-and-coming exec at a hip, youth and music-oriented TV station (NO IT’S NOT MTV WHY WOULD YOU THINK THAT) who meets Lelaina when she causes a car accident in between the two. Instantly enchanted, he courts Lelaina for the rest of the movie, making out with her to Peter Frampton and eventually taking her video project (about her friends and youth in general in the 90s, more on that later) to the brass at Non-MTV, who love it and want to buy it immediately. He believes in her, he calls her from the road, he forgives her for breaking his Dr. Zaius doll and spends much of the movie apologizing for stuff that he never really did wrong. Michael is what you would coloquially refer to as a nice guy.

Troy is not a nice guy. In fact, you could probably count the amount of things that Troy does over the course of Reality Bites that would even register him as human on one hand, even if you were Mordecai “Three-Fingered” Brown. He shows no apparent romantic interest in Laine until she starts to date Michael, at which point he decides its finally time to make his big move (after she gets fired from her John Mahoney-hosted talk show, for maximum vulnerability potential). When she rejects him, he immediately switches into “I Can’t” mode, shutting out her sincere pleas for friendship and generally just pouting a lot. Then, once things aren’t going so well with Michael, he’s back in to rescue her, but abandons her the morning after. But then when Michael shows up to win her back…you get the idea.

The best (or at least, most memorable) scene in Reality Bites is when Troy is waiting up for Laine after her Frampton makeout with Michael, and she demands to know why he’s suddenly acting so jealous. He gets up from his seat, walks over to her, puts his hand on her cheek, and says with total brown-eyed sincerity: “I am really in love with you.” And for a second, Laine just melts–her eyes drop, her lips quiver, and her previously indignant and pissed-off attitude instantly vanishes. With that one line, you can tell that Troy is, at the absolute most, two moves away from the boudoir. But then his straight face cracks into a smile, and he bursts the bubble: “Is that what you want to hear? Is it? Well…don’t flatter yourself.” It’s a greater act of cruelty from one human being to another than anything I saw in Schindler’s List (well, arguably anyway), especially because from her one-second reaction, it was clear that in fact that was exactly what Laine wanted to hear. But rather than save both of them a lot of time and effort by sinking the pink right then and there, Troy opts for the more immediately self-satisfying taunt approach instead. Like I said, Troy is not a nice guy.

The choice between these two individuals would for most people seem like an easy one, even despite the fact that Michael looks like Ben Stiller and Troy looks like Ethan Hawke. But ultimately, despite having spent the last two hours making her feel as much like shit as humanly possible, it’s Troy who wins out for Lelaina’s heart in the end, without her even giving Michael so much as a goodbye. She realizes her love for Troy to the strains of U2’s “All I Want is You,” he shows up at her doorstep, and the deal is sealed–a happy ending, supposedly.

But the most ridiculous thing about the ending is that despite it being frustrating, illogical and just inately wrong, it’s actually the only way the movie could’ve ended. There’s no way Lelaina could’ve ended up with Michael, because the whole movie it’s obvious that she doesn’t give a damn about him, and that’s because he gives way too much of a damn about her. The entire movie, Laine is fucking things up for Michael–causing him to crash his car, breaking his Dr. Zaius doll, storming out of the Non-MTV meeting after he stuck his neck out for her, and of course, eventually cheating on him with Troy–and most of the time, it’s Michael who ends up apologizing. He loves her enough to let her walk all over him and not ask why, and that’s not something Laine can respect or really even understand. It’s Troy that knows how to put her in her place, and that’s what she responds to (something that Michael could never understand, as evidenced the Non-MTV flick of his shown halfway through the credits with a mock-Troy spurning a mock-Laine because she doesn’t understand his music)

Pretty black stuff, but Chuck Klosterman had another theory about the ending (from Sex, Drugs & Cocoa Puffs), one which ties into the movie’s other main theme–that the ending of Laine ending up with Troy was a quintessentially 90s way of appoaching love. Gen Xers, sez Klosterman, were the first generation to be brought up to think that they could do it differently–differently than their parents did, different from the normal way of doing things, and different from what was expected of them. They were willing to risk their future on a life that wasn’t safe or predictable. And so, Laine ends up with Troy–far from safe, not the predictable option, someone who might very well destroy her in the end, but someone for whom she genuinely cares and for whom she’s willing to take a chance. I’m also positive that the fact that Troy shows up at her doorstep sans goatee for the first time in the movie has something to do with this, but I’m not sure exactly what yet.

Solid point, and it especially makes sense because every single other thing about the film basically exists for the sole purpose of making the official Gen X spokesmovie. Reality Bites might be the first movie ever made to actively attempt to sum up a generation–some movies have done it incidentally, probably, but no other flick had tried quite so hard. Even Singles, another quintessentially 90s romantic comedy, one even set in the definitively 90s location of grunge-era Seattle, felt more like a movie that just happened to strike in the right place at the right time. Reality Bites was made with the absolute intention of people being able to point it out to their kids ten or twenty years down the line and say “That movie–THAT is what the 90s were like

And, strangely and sadly enough, it basically succeeded. Watching it today, Reality Bites looks more dated than Sixteen Candles and Teen Wolf combined. The clothes, the facial hair, the coffee shops, the television–there’s barely an image in this movie that isn’t explicitly reminding you of when it was filmed. Then there’s the script, splattered with 90s dialogue (even the title, yikes), the appropriately cutesy 70s nostalgia that was so pervasive in the 90s, and of course, the soudntrack–just look at some of the artists: Julianna Hatfield, Me Phi Me, Big Mountain–would these guys even have existed without Reality Bites? Hard to say.

And then there’s the performances. The thing that most grounds this movie in 1994 for me is that with the possible exception of Winona Ryder, none of these actors would ever play characters like the ones they play in Reality Bites again. This is the only movie I can think of with Ethan Hawke where he’s even slightly unlikeable, let alone the embodiement of pure evil–yeah, maybe his character was kind of ambiguous in Tape, and maybe he turned out to actually be a murderer in Taking Lives (my god why did I see that movie), but even if those movies, he just generally seems like such an amicable, sympathetic guy. Meanwhile, Janeane Garofalo gets to play the slut sidekick, instead of the homely girl jealous of the slut sidekick that she would subsequently (and far more logically) get cast as for the remainder of the decade. Ben Stiller plays a pressured, not very bright, well-meaning guy, whereas for the rest of his career he’d play pressured, moderately bright, well-meaning guys. And Steve Zahn–he’s actually quiet for most of the movie. It feels like an alternate film universe, one in which John Lovitz might play a mild-mannered physics teacher if he showed up.

It’s ironic how a movie as obviously inorganic as Reality Bites could end up feeling so definitive. Partly it’s because I don’t think Stiller succeeded quite in the way he meant to–I doubt he quite meant for the movie to call attention to its generation-definining quite as often as it did, he probably just assumed people would make the connection on their own without even necessarily realizing it. But what Stiller probably doesn’t understand is that the movie obviously wanting people to realize what an epochal moment in popular culture it was is possibly what gives the movie it’s greatest legacy–Reality Bites was the beginning of instant-nostalgia culture, the first movie to reflect on its own standing in PC history as it was being made. It’s a self-consciousness that simply wouldn’t have been possible the previous decade, and one that predates the InstaPC of VH1 shows like Best Week Ever and I Love the _______s by a decade itself.

Few movies have been made that are more artificial than Reality Bites, and it’s an artifice that screams at you for the whole movie. Yet it was that artifice itself that made Reality Bites so fascinating, that artifice that keeps me and plenty of other 90s survivors coming back to the movie, despite our better judgement. Classic movie? Definitely not. Important movie? Yeah, probably. At the very least, I don’t see any 00s filmmakers trying to canonize Gen Y so succinctly. Or maybe they already have, and we just won’t notice until ten years from now. Here’s hoping.

(Also, because I’d feel extremely fucking remiss if I went a whole blog entry on Reality Bites without once mentioning Lisa Loeb’s “Stay (I Missed You),” just gotta say–best song ever, why the fuck does the movie hold it until the second half of the end credits?)

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