Generational divides are a myth.
A quarter century after its release, Ben Stiller’s Reality Bites fails to be a particularly good romantic comedy, but it is an absolutely indispensable time capsule. On the one hand, it’s funny revisiting a film so typified by the surface level trappings of Gen-X culture, but on the other, it’s a little depressing how little ended up changing for the millennials that followed in their footsteps.
The original screenplay writer Helen Childress penned for this project was primarily focused around her group of twentysomething friends struggling to survive in a recession, with a varied cast each with their own fleshed out storylines. But the ensuing rounds and rounds of rewrites designed to more specifically speak to Generation X as an audience evolved into a John Hughes-lite romcom centered around one of cinema’s most irritating love triangles. Though the film begins with valedictorian Lelaina (Winona Ryder), her close friends graduating from college and the documentary she’s making about them, flitting through their collective difficulties in adapting to adulthood, it settles on juxtaposing her unrequited attraction to Slacker Jesus himself Troy (Ethan Hawke in one of his most iconic roles) and television executive Michael (Stiller.)
Yes, the film still makes time for Sammy (Steve Zahn) and his coming out of the closet as well as Vickie (Janeane Garofalo) and her AIDS scare, but at its core, it cares most about whether Lelaina, a largely likable woman, will choose a couch-surfing, anti-consumerist asshole like Troy or a nice salary and general befuddlement in the shape of a man called Michael. It’s like Pretty in Pink, except both guys are varying shades of Ducky. It’s a fundamentally flawed love story populated by unrelatable people whose emotional maturity leaves something to be desired.
But unlike the stunted protagonists of Cameron Crowe’s Singles or Stephen Frears’ High Fidelity, no one in Reality Bites grows very much. By narrative necessity, they limp along to suitably satisfying but totally unearned happy endings, but nothing along the way functions the way an actual story is supposed to. Instead of fleshing out the characters beyond their easily identifiable and efficiently executed archetypes, Stiller and Childress capture a grating side of the zeitgeist with expert attention to detail.
The cast are all so perfect in their roles that the inherently flawed nature of those roles only feels so grating on repeat viewings. Every line of dialogue is TV commercial ad copy recontextualized as bad poetry scrawled on the stall of a grunge club bathroom. People speak in Snapple cap factoids, play drinking games around “Good Times” episode plots and feel more like parodies of characters than real human beings. While the obsession with pop cultural ephemera rings true, it reduces the cast to mouthpieces for self-reflexive wit in a way still felt in the works of Diablo Cody, Dan Harmon and anyone else who doesn’t see a need to limit their reliance on meta-commentary.
This tone actually undermines one of the film’s most dramatic moments. When Michael gets his MTV-esque network to pick up Lelaina’s documentary, she’s furious that they re-edited it into an over the top but quickly digestible pop art mess. The problem is that what they screen for her is only distinguishable from the film we’ve been watching by virtue of the number of cuts used. It’s only slightly worse than the film itself, like a VHS-recorded Ouroboros.
The truly troubling lesson of Reality Bites comes from the financial difficulties and cultural strife from which the characters are born. Maybe the constant references to old TV shows are a little much, but their economic reality was no exaggeration. When Lelaina’s father, played by Joe Don Baker, talks down about her peers and their inherent laziness, it’s an easy criticism given Troy’s persistent navel gazing, but the real issues they face – like someone with a college degree having to work at a hot dog stand – haven’t gone away.
Someone could remake Reality Bites shot for shot, replace the VCRs with Blu-Ray players and the references to old movies to, well, references to Reality Bites and it would work nearly as well as an encapsulation of the ennui, frustration and depression of millennial culture. Lelaina would probably get with Vickie and the word “retarded” wouldn’t be said so blithely in every other scene, but it would still show a group of semi-grown-ups incapable of establishing the kind of homes their parents made then broke. They would still turn to pop culture and filming themselves to find answers. The music would maybe be slightly better. Generational divides are a myth.