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Classic Movie Review: 'Reality Bites' Starring Winona Ryder and Ethan Hawke

Reality Bites is the subject of the next I Hate Critics 1994 podcast.

By Sean PatrickPublished 2 months ago 7 min read
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Reality Bites (1994)

Directed by Ben Stiller

Written by Helen Childress

Starring Winona Ryder, Ethan Hawke, Janeane Garofalo, Steve Zahn, Ben Stiller

Release Date February 18th, 1994

Published February 21st, 1994

In the 80s you were called a sellout when you appeared in commercials for brands that people didn't like or respect. In the 90s, this insult evolved into people being called Posers. Essentially, people who tried to be part of a culture that they were not authentically part of were 'Posing,' pretending to be cool and hip and down with the kids. It's strange to think how antiquated this thinking is today. In our modern culture, some of the most popular celebrities are themselves a brand that is associated with other brands for the purpose of selling products to consumers, also known as fans. In the 80s, famed comedian Bill Hicks railed against celebrities in Diet Coke commercials as the ultimate sin that one could commit against authenticity. Today, you'd be hard pressed to find a celebrity who isn't accompanied by some kind of brand deal and we all just accept it as the norm.

Sorry for the tangent but writing about Reality Bites bums me out so getting distracted is like a gentle and brief oasis. Reality Bites is the ultimate Poser movie. In the 90s, if marketers wanted to reach the youth market they would find an attractive model or celebrity, throw some flannel and chunky boots on them and have them 'Hello Fellow Young People' their way into our living rooms. We'd roll our eyes and call them posers and then probably still buy the products but ironically and without passion. That's Reality Bites in a nutshell, a movie that comes wandering in dressed in flannel and armored in irony and disaffected youth while selling the notion that it is The Big Chill for Generation X. And yes, I rolled my eyes when I thought of that and then bought a ticket for Reality Bites so I could roll my eyes in front of the big screen and pretend not to care about how the movie was selling a conception of my generation back to me like any other branded product.

Reality Bites stars Winona Ryder as Lelaina Pierce, college valedictorian and wannabe documentarian. Lelaina spent her college years getting drunk, getting high, and still making it to class on time and getting good grades. Most of Lelaina's time is spent behind a camera where she has been documenting the lives of her closest friends including Vickie (Janeane Garofalo), a manager at The Gap, Sammy (Steve Zahn), a closeted gay man, closeted at least to his family, and Troy (Ethan Hawke), Lelaina's on again, off again, best friend and flirting partner. We get to see plenty of Lelaina's supposed documentary and what we see does not communicate any serious attempt at documentary filmmaking. It's an entirely facile representation of someone's dream of making movies and it gets Reality Bites off to a deeply inauthentic start that doesn't get any better from there.

Lelaina is working in television at the moment, serving as a script editor and coffee-getter for the kind of local morning talk show that has become a dinosaur in this day and age. It was a dinosaur in 1994 as well but it was still a viable television career back then. For reasons that the movie fails to explain, Lelaina hopes to get some of her documentary footage featured on this show that she has no respect for and that would be a terrible platform for the kind of freeform and modern 'documentary' she claims to be making. Nevertheless, when the host of the show, played with brilliant comic arrogance by the late great John Mahoney, rejects Lelaina's documentary, quite reasonably for not fitting the format of this dimwitted morning chat show, Lelaina gets herself fired by humiliating the host on the air in a subplot that never feels organic, original, or remotely funny.

Left with no job and failing to find anything in her field, Lelaina falls into a mild depression while her friends vaguely try to help, and she becomes deeply unlikable in rejecting what help is offered. I love Winona Ryder but her character here becomes deeply unlikable and quite irritating as the movie desperately strives and fails to capture the disaffection and disappointment that was a hallmark of Generation X, feeling everything deeply and trying not to show it. Ryder is a Hollywood lifer who'd been a movie star for a few years when Reality Bites was released so she was perhaps not the right avatar for a Generation that looked down its nose at successful people while venerating those for whom success seemed thrust upon them, see Kurt Cobain.

I am a big fan of Ben Stiller. The Ben Stiller of the 90s was genuinely hip and funny. The Ben Stiller show was ahead of its time in terms of sketch comedy. His film work however, comes off as desperately uneven. There is an aspect of Stiller where he seems ready and willing to please corporate masters while still wanting to be accepted by the cool kids. The character Ben plays in Reality Bites is that exact dichotomy, a desperately uncool corporate tool who is eager to be accepted by the cool kids who want nothing to do with him and his grown-up values and desire to have money and success. Being unsuccessful and having no goals was another deeply unfortunate hallmark of Generation X, one that Reality Bites tries and fails to capture in a way that feels authentic. In the hands of Stiller and the marketing machine behind Reality Bites, the real feelings and deep, fearful anxieties of Gen-X'ers are merely part of the scenery, not unlike grungy apartments, chunky shoes, and greasy hair.

Not a single moment of Reality Bites feels authentic especially when compared to a movie like Singles. Singles, written and directed by Cameron Crowe, was released in 1991 and is everything that Reality Bites is not. Singles is genuinely funny, warm, and deeply cares about the feelings of angst and disaffection felt by Gen-Xers of the time. Where Reality Bites is a commercial facsimile selling disaffection and irony as a brand, Singles arrived fully authentic, bathed in the genuine appreciation of the music and the style of time and eager to reflect the fears and hopes of a Generation that hated their parents and turned to not caring about anything too deeply as a way to reject the values of Hippies who became Yuppies. Cameron Crowe understands in his very soul what it is like to need to be successful and have goals while also not wanting to become like the soulless Yuppie Scum who turned their back on wanting to change the world in favor of big salaries, stock options and power suits.

Reality Bites is the movie that Yuppies made about Generation X. Regardless of Ben Stiller directing the movie, and being of the generation, Reality Bites is a market tested, deeply watered down attempt to sell Generation X back to itself as a product. Nowhere is this clearer than in Ethan Hawke's lazy performance as Troy, the greasy haired, magazine cover ready, slacker personified. He's in a band, he reads philosophy, if the movie weren't set in Texas he'd be wearing flannel and a beanie, he's a collection of character traits searching for an actual soul. He's the love interest by default because he looks like a Gen-Xer whereas Ben Stiller looks like a Yuppie in-training, the enemy of Generation X, as devised by a marketing team that doesn't see him as an enemy. It's clear from Hawke's performance that his heart isn't in this. He's bored, he can barely muster the strength to be awake. He's not engaging in this material because what material is there? Troy isn't a movie character; he belongs in a jean commercial.

Reality Bites is the subject of the next I Hate Critics Movie Review Podcast Spinoff, I Hate Critics 1994. Each week, myself along with Gen-Zer, M.J, and Gen-Xer Amy, talk about the movies that were released 30 years ago that weekend. The goal is to chart how movies and culture have shifted over the past three decades and it has been an enlightening and fun journey, even as we have learned that a lot of movies from the 1990s are completely terrible and difficult to sit through. You can find the I Hate Critics 1994 Podcast on Facebook, I hate Critics 1994, and listen to the show on the I Hate Critics Movie Review Podcast feed wherever you listen to podcasts.

Find my archive of more than 20 years and nearly 2000 movie reviews at SeanattheMovies.blogspot.com. Find my modern review archive on my Vocal Profile, linked here. Follow me on Twitter at PodcastSean. Follow the archive blog on Twitter at SeanattheMovies. Listen to the I Hate Critics Movie Review Podcast, wherever you listen to Podcasts. If you have enjoyed what you have read, consider subscribing to my writing on Vocal. If you'd like to support my wrting, you can do so by making a monthly pledge or by leaving a one-time tip. Thanks!

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About the Creator

Sean Patrick

Hello, my name is Sean Patrick He/Him, and I am a film critic and podcast host for the I Hate Critics Movie Review Podcast I am a voting member of the Critics Choice Association, the group behind the annual Critics Choice Awards.

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