From 1985-1995 (i.e. when the median Gen X-er was aged 13-23), and maybe even a few years beyond that, Hollywood made a slew of comedies that explored the “slacker” mindset of young adults. This is probably the one that most purely explores the slacker mindset. (I say this despite not having seen Richard Linklater’s Slacker, yet I still feel like this is the one.)
With that in mind, I have to admit that I have a hard time connecting with this one. Its concerns feel so dated, and its ethos feels so hypocritical and off-putting.
The story is, structurally at least, a romantic comedy. In fact, if you break the movie down to its barest elements and describe it, it probably sounds like a charming and fairly conventional romcom. Lelaina (Winona Ryder) and Troy (Ethan Hawke) are two recent college grads who circled each other but never dated, and find themselves on different paths: Lelaina, an up-and-comer in the TV industry; Troy a wandering nomad in a grunge band. After losing her job, she finds herself at a crossroads, professionally and romantically: Pursue another coprorate TV job or her passion project of a documentary about her friends’ lives that’s a lens into her time and place? And, by extension, date the TV producer Michael (Ben Stiller) or follow her chemistry with Troy?
But the movie is really much more about the existential dread of being a young adult in the cultural morass of the ’90s than anything else. Lots of specificity in the culture and norms and trends that twentysomethings found, by turns, exhausting and exciting.
Even that pitch makes it sound a little bit more intriguing than it actually is. For example, after Lelaina is fired, we spend a couple minutes watching her sit on the couch and dial into a TV psychic while chain-smoking cigarettes. There’s not really any comedy or insight to it, just a small portrait of someone spiraling in a very era-specific way. That’s the movie in a nutshell, to me: A hangout comedy that never really invites me in or tells me anything all that interesting about its characters.
And there’s a crucial flaw in the romantic comedy design, too. It makes us root for the wrong guy. Stiller’s Michael is supposed to be the corporate loser, but he seems so much more interesting and composed than greaseball misanthrope Troy (Hawke).
Incidentally, Stiller is also the director of the film, and he acquits himself well. Some of the blocking is occasionally awkward, like in the climax at a rock show which has multiple moving parts but never much energy. But never does it feel like an “actor-directed movie” with blunt-force closeups and overacting, and he constructs a few fun scenes, like a gas station dance to “My Sharona.”
All that said, the movie is able to lean considerably on the cast and their chemistry, which really is terrific. The movie has me convinced I need to check out every Ryder performance — she’s electric. Hawke is a bit too pouty for my tastes, but still deeply charismatic. Steve Zahn has a major role and, as always, he makes the movie better. He and Janeane Garofalo have side plots that tackle queer and/or sexual themes: coming out and AIDS scares, respectively. These are easily the most interesting era-specific threads of the film.
And the romance at the core of the movie still functions thanks entirely to the palpable romantic tension between Ryder and Hawke. I always say that half the battle of a romantic comedy is getting the casting of the leads right, and, as mentioned, Reality Bites is basically a specimen of the genre.
Ultimately, the film left a slightly bitter taste on my tongue; I can’t quite give it a passing grade right now, but I’d definitely watch it again.