Reality Bites (1994) / Comedy-Drama

MPAA Rated: PG-13 for sexuality, language, and some drug use
Running Time: 99 min.

Cast: Winona Ryder, Ethan Hawke, Janeane Garofalo, Ben Stiller, Steve Zahn, John Mahoney, Joe Don Baker, Swoosie Kurtz, David Spade, Andy Dick (cameo), Keith David (cameo), Anne Meara (cameo), Karen Duffy (cameo), Anthony Robbins (cameo), Jeanne Tripplehorn (cameo), Renee Zellweger (cameo)
Director: Ben Stiller
Screenplay: Helen Childress

Review published June 1, 2006

Designed to have an underlying commentary about what it's like to be 20-something in the mid-1990s, Reality Bites does contain a few insights, but not nearly enough to be able to lay its claim as a defining film for its generation.   I suppose it says a lot about the film when it is better known as the debut directorial stint for Ben Stiller (The Cable Guy, Zoolander), and it is more popular among its target audience for its soundtrack.  Still, despite the lack of true profundity that Helen Childress is able to evoke in her first (and so far last) screenplay to be made into a feature film, as a standard dramedy, it's funny, insightful, and interesting enough in spells to make it a worthwhile experience for most, especially for those that are experiencing stagnation at the crossroads in their lives.

Winona Ryder (Beetlejuice, Little Women) stars as Houstonite Lelaina Pierce, a struggling television assistant that has aspirations of an astute documentarian for her disenfranchised generation, constantly filming her life and that of her friends, trying to edit the moments down into something of substance to sell in its purest form.  Pressures begin to weigh in on her shortly after graduating from college, stuck in a joyless job, with a roommate (Garofalo, Romy and Michele) that has an ever-increasing set of emotional baggage, and a misanthropic new addition to the apartment in the form of Troy (Hawke, Mystery Date), the guy with the 180 IQ and little success to really show for it. 

For a film which features the word "irony" so prominently, it's suitably ironic that Reality Bites features a documentary given the commercial television treatment, as the movie as a whole has an underlying compelling story that feels like it has been drained of all uniqueness by the corporate interests handling the film.  Lots of product placement, hits to hock the soundtrack, and homogenized scenes of characters looking like they are on the verge of making important statements about life, love, and the pain of everyday existence in this culture that doesn't seem to appreciate them.  Somewhere amidst the glossy Hollywood presentation, the real story of four very confused and lonely people cries out to emerge, and we're only given momentary glimpses before they are all boxed up and packaged like a Pizza Hut advertisement, quite literally if you see the film.

While Reality Bites does manage to be entertaining while it plays, there is a disappointing quality to it, as it is so clearly a movie that was created to be much more resonant to its lost generation than it ever manages to be.  Nevertheless, there are some funny bits, and strong performances all around, but the overriding sense of self-importance does manage to make it feel a bit smarmy and needlessly haughty.  Reality Bites is the third of three notable films to come out in the early 1990s about the troubles of the X generation, coming after Slacker and Singles.  While those films have their share of problems, at least they didn't feel as much like a commercialized studio project to exploit the very generation that feels disenfranchised enough already by corporate manipulation.

 Qwipster's rating:

2006 Vince Leo