Reality Bites (1994)

11 Sep

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Smith’s Verdict: *1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

A film that shows the plight of post-college graduates can be made well, if the makers of it just take their time to really dive into what it’s like to accept the reality of growing up and facing real life. Joel Schumacher’s horrid “St. Elmo’s Fire” was not that film, and unfortunately, neither is Ben Stiller’s “Reality Bites.” Instead of presenting its characters as real, reasonable people, “Reality Bites” presents them as shallow, callous, and all-around terrible.

Now, to be sure, there are people like that in the world, and I’m not saying you can’t like a film with unlikeable characters. But the story framing of “Reality Bites” is all wrong, trying to make the film into a quirky romantic comedy (even with old clichés to assist it), and that can only mean that no serious consequences are necessary for their behavior. And I hated it even more when I realize that nothing about them has changed and that these are supposed to be our sympathetic heroes all along.

These are nonconformist Gen-Xers in the mid-‘90s whose plights are centered around two common rules for them—don’t sell out and don’t give in to The Man. Would that explain why Winona Ryder’s Lelaina Pierce isn’t the best employee working for a local morning television show? Would that explain why Ethan Hawke’s Troy Dyer lost his twelfth (yes, twelfth) job and is now living with Lelaina and her friends, sleep-around Vickie Miner (Janeane Garofalo) and closeted Sammy Gray (Steve Zahn)? Would that also explain why he spends his time playing guitar at a coffee house when he’s not lounging on the couch, spewing pretentious “insight?”

Of the four characters I just mentioned, the only two characters that have legitimate dramatic conflicts in their lives are not the two main characters, Lelaina and Troy, but Vickie and Sammy. And because the film is too focused on the former two to care about these two more interesting people, they get little to no resolution. Vickie has a series of one-night stands that leads to her confronting a very real risk of catching the HIV virus. What happens then? The test comes out negative, and we’re not sure of whether or not she’ll continue with these flings. Then there’s Sammy—very possibly gay. He hasn’t come out of the closet yet because of how his conservative parents might react. What’s his resolution? I don’t know, because Lalaina’s documentation doesn’t follow into Sammy’s parents’ house where he goes to tell them. I guess we’re supposed to assume it went well and now Sammy will starting seeing men.

Oh yeah, there’s a story here, isn’t there? “Lalaina’s documentation,” as I forcibly brought into the review just now, refers to Lalaina constantly videotaping her friends goofing around or discussing their current situations. (Hello, Mark Cohen from “RENT.”) She uses a regular home-video camera with bad video quality so the film can try and make it seem “real.” Maybe if they were worried about reality with this angle, they would know that not many filmmakers shake the camera as much as Lalaina does, except for those who are either starting out in this field or don’t know how to frame a shot.

This documentary has a chance to aired on TV, when Lalaina meets a nice yuppie who happens to work for an MTV-like station. This is Michael Grates, played by the director himself Ben Stiller. He is a good man—he’s smart, he’s attentive, he’s nervous, he’s pretty much everything that Troy is not, which the film tries to make us think is a bad thing. Why? Because Lalaina has to choose between the two of them, even though it’s very obvious (to us, anyway) who the right guy is for her. Michael is supposed to be “the other man” for Lalaina to leave, so she and Troy can get together.

The most frustrating aspect of this film is that it had a chance to avoid that cliché and it just didn’t ignore it. Here’s what happens—Michael takes Lelaina’s finished documentary to the station network; it’s edited severely in a stylized montage that Lelaina doesn’t recognize as her “artistic vision”; she’s mad because Michael sold out to The Man; and she leaves him so she can be with Troy. (Actually, I think the network improved the documentary!) Ben Stiller sold his own character out.

“Reality Bites” is essentially hipster trash. It has nothing to present aside from superficiality and callousness, the very things that the characters claim they don’t want to be involved with. This film didn’t make me care about the problems of post-college graduates; it just made me think of rewriting the screenplay myself and thinking of what I would personally add. Now, I’m just wondering where I would begin.

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