Reality Bites

Life after college – the time between graduation and finding a job that pays your rent without making you puke. Panic time. By spinning something fresh out of something familiar, Reality Bites scores the first comedy knockout of the new year. It also brings out the vibrant best in Winona Ryder and Ethan Hawke as friends who resist being lovers, makes a star of Janeane Garofalo as their tart-tongued buddy and puts Ben Stiller on the map as a director. The 28-year-old Stiller, who also acts in the film as a yuppie profiteer, pushes beyond the incisive parody of his late, lamented Fox TV series, The Ben Stiller Show, to reveal the fears that kick in after school's out. And debuting screenwriter Helen Childress, 23, works playfully hip variations on the Slacker-Singles theme. Even when Reality Bites stoops to being glibly ingratiating, it gets the behavioral details right.

It's graduation day at an unnamed university in Texas. Class valedictorian Lelaina Pierce (Ryder) is trashing her parents' generation for trading in their '60s ideals for a BMW and a pair of running shoes. Now that it's her turn to show up the sellouts, Lelaina is unnerved. She takes a $400-a-week job as an assistant to a boobish local talk-show host (John Mahoney) who hates her "pointy little face" and intellectual condescension. Keep it "light and perky," he tells Lelaina. She thinks he's so cheesy she "can't watch him without crackers."

Still, the job helps pay the rent on the Houston apartment Lelaina shares with her best friend, Vickie (Garofalo), who's now a manager at the Gap and attending jeans-folding seminars. Is this what college prepared them for? Lelaina thinks not; she also thinks it's a bad idea to let another school chum, Troy (Hawke), move in. In Lelaina's view, Troy – an unemployed philosophy major slouching toward a career as a rock musician – will turn the apartment into a "den of slack." But Vickie persists. "He's strange, he's sloppy, he's a total nightmare for women," she admits. "I can't believe I haven't slept with him yet." Garofalo, a regular on the Stiller series and HBO's acclaimed Larry Sanders Show, is a sensational comic find. She can lace a laugh with feeling in a unique way that promises a big future in movies.

Vickie lists the men she has slept with in a notebook; it was 66 at last count. Commitment scares her. As Lelaina says, "She's out the door before the condom comes off." It's Vickie and her friend Sammy (Steve Zahn), a closeted gay, who see the unspoken attraction that sparks the dis sessions between Lelaina and Troy. "Why don't you two just do it and get it over with," says Vickie. But Troy is more likely to cop an attitude than express emotion. Hawke (Dead Poets Society, Alive!) could have slid by on grunge sexiness. Instead, he finds reserves of passion in this hard case who doesn't want to end up like his working-stiff father, now dying of prostate cancer. "Hello," says Troy, answering the phone at home, "you've reached the winter of our discontent."

Reality Bites is that rare film that captures the strain unemployment puts on friendships as well as finances. "You eat and couch and fondle the remote control," Lelaina tells Troy in disgust. But when she's fired from the talk show, her behavior isn't much different. These characters take comfort in ducking reality through talking, toking, watching '70s TV reruns and grooving to such oldie hits as Squeeze's "Tempted" and the Knack's "My Sharona." Lelaina captures all the fun and angst on her camcorder for a documentary she would like to sell to PBS. Instead, the footage winds up in the hands of Michael Grates (Stiller), an exec for the In Your Face cable channel ("It's like MTV but with an edge"). Michael falls hard for Lelaina and sees her videos as a perfect start for some reality programming. Stiller is wildly funny. He even makes us feel for this well-meaning college dropout who insists there's more to his life than a balance sheet. "I know why the caged bird sings," he says.

It's not likely. The jealous Troy hates Michael on sight ("He's the reason Cliffs Notes were invented") and laughs at Michael's inability to finish a coherent sentence. Angry over Troy's contempt, Michael snaps, "What's your glitch?" Hardly the mot juste, and Troy nails him for it. Michael may not have cool, but he has Lelaina. Or at least he does until she sees what a shallow package In Your Face makes of her reality videos, now cut down and tricked up with flashy graphics.

There are times when Stiller the director makes the same shambles of Reality Bites. The film's last half-hour degenerates into a cloyingly conventional romance that no amount of fancy editing, hit-sound-track music and howlingly pretentious dialogue can disguise. "There's a planet of regret on my shoulders," Troy tells Lelaina in a drawn-out reconciliation scene that stops the movie and Hawke's performance cold. At these moments, Reality Bites is guilty of the very things it's criticizing.

But mostly the film shows a keen understanding of the anxiety that lies beneath the banter. It's both hilarious and horrific to watch Lelaina face the challenge of the job market. Her mom (Swoosie Kurtz) suggests that she try Burgerama. When Lelaina points out that she was valedictorian at her university, she's told, "You don't have to put that down on your application." It turns out Lelaina's math isn't good enough to hack it as a fast-food cashier. She fails her interview for a reporting spot at the Houston Chronicle when an editor (Anne Meara, half of the comedy team of Stiller and Meara, who are Ben Stiller's parents) asks Lelaina to define irony. "I know it when I see it," says Lelaina, who can't find the words.

Ryder is luminous. She can crack a joke one minute and crush your heart the next without breaking character or letting the acting show. She also brings a prickly intelligence to bear when the role gives her the chance, though Stiller is often content to let the camera stare at her just being adorable. Who can blame him? But the spine Ryder brought to her roles in Heathers and The Age of Innocence makes us long for stronger stuff. It comes when Ryder digs in to a scene that shows Lelaina hiding from the world under a blanket in front of a blaring TV while chain-smoking and taking advice from a phone-in shrink. Vickie takes one look and cracks: "You are in the bell jar."

What distinguishes the movie is the way it seems to catch characters off guard. Take a simple conversation at a diner. Vickie is worried about her AIDS test, and humor helps her and Lelaina deflect their fears. "I feel like I'm on a crappy show like Melrose Place," says Vickie. "I'm the HIV character who it's OK to be nice to, but then I die, and everybody comes to my funeral dressed in chokers and halter tops." Lelaina stifles a laugh before replying: "Melrose Place is a really good show." Who says this girl doesn't know irony?

Reality Bites is at its smartest when it stays messiest, when Stiller can't resist squeezing in more good stuff. His fiancée, Jeanne Tripplehorn, appears as a Cindy Crawford fashion clone; Ryder's boyfriend, Dave Pirner, shows up in one of Lelaina's video interviews. The result is like a party that is no less enjoyable for being out of control. You may think Reality Bites is just a bunch of white kids sitting around whining. If so, what's your glitch? It's also pure entertainment.

From The Archives Issue 677: March 10, 1994