Am I the only viewer in America who has a problem with the recent spate of slacker movies? From Slacker to Singles to Dazed and Confused, a trend seems to be emerging, the salient characteristic of which is the romanticization of sloth and navel contemplation. Not that I have anything against either state, mind you. In fact, I aspire to sloth myself. But that doesn't mean I want to pay seven bucks to watch a movie about a bunch of people even less motivated than I am sitting around doing nothing. It makes me envious.
Recently, however, film critics whose opinions I respect have been raving about a feeble fillet of twentysomething tripe called Reality Bites. "The first comedy knockout of the year!" effuses Rolling Stone's Peter Travers. "It takes a spectacular cast to pull off this kind of romantic comedy," cheers Caryn James of the New York Times. "Winona Ryder gives her first true star performance," slobbers Owen Gleiberman of Entertainment Weekly.
What is going on here? To read these reviews you'd think Reality Bites was a Generation X hybrid of The Big Chill and The Graduate. The truth is it's a lot closer to St. Elmo's Fire.
Not that Reality Bites is a really bad movie. It's a semi-hip and occasionally funny variation on that time-honored plot device, the romantic triangle. Winona Ryder stars as Lelaina, class valedictorian of an unnamed university somewhere in Texas. At first it's refreshing to see Ryder in a contemporary setting again, but she quickly outwears her welcome by jumping into the geeky waif schtick pioneered by Ally Sheedy a little under a decade ago. Smart though she may be, Ryder's Lelaina is also -- surprise! -- a bit of a ditz. While delivering her big valedictory address to her graduating classmates, Lelaina excoriates the Baby Boomers who preceded her generation into the real world for "trading in their ideals for a BMW and a pair of running shoes." A few scenes later she is tooling down the road in a Beamer of her own, a graduation gift from her father. It is one measure of the film's lack of depth that this irony goes unnoticed.
Lelaina enters into a relationship with Michael, an ambitious, cellular phone-toting ca-reerist who for some inexplicable reason adores her. This affair stirs up jealousy in Lelaina's long-time platonic slacker buddy Troy (Ethan Hawke in a smart rehash of Brad Pitt's stoner role in True Romance). Michael's attentions force Troy into making a romantic move that is surprising only to Lelaina. Everyone else, including Lelaina's brassy roommate Vickie, who logs her sexual conquests in a notebook and is up to 66 as the movie opens, can see the fireworks coming a mile away.
So Lelaina has to decide between a kind, attentive, loving, successful overachiever and a brooding, drugged-out, couch potato philosopher who delights in belittling anyone less educated than he is. Michael is an executive for an MTV-like cable network. Troy, like, has a band (of course). Guess who Lelaina chooses. (Hint: Troy's a WASP, Michael isn't). I don't know, call me jaded, but this good-girls-falling-for-bad-boys routine is getting old. Just once I'd like to see the heroine go for the guy with the stable day job.
Lelaina's choice is not the only aspect of Reality Bites that makes no sense. Lelaina loses her gofer job at a local TV station, then insensitively dismisses a consoling offer of temporary employment from Vickie, a Gap store manager, because Lelaina "didn't go to college for four years to work at the Gap." Valedictorian Lelaina acts surprised when this rejection hurts Vickie, who, unlike Lelaina, immediately picks up on the "my standards are higher than yours" subtext. Although Vickie is understandably insulted, by the next scene all appears magically forgiven.
Then again, sometimes it doesn't matter. Screenwriter Helen Childress has stocked her script with enough clever lines to make the steady stream of twentysomething inside jokes and pop culture palaver palatable. Ben Stiller's direction is competent and his performance as the hapless suitor Michael is a gem. Like the magician who counts on misdirection to make his tricks work, Reality Bites banks on witty one-liners and a likable cast to deflect scrutiny from the perfunctory story line.
Maybe I'm just too old to fully appreciate this junk. I've slurped my share of Big Gulps; that doesn't mean I enjoy listening to Winona Ryder's character rhapsodize them. In fact, if I were a member of the generation this film purports to represent, I think I'd be even more negative because, in addition to its other sins, Reality Bites is downright patronizing, another movie centered on spoiled white kids whining about their petty problems.
It's enough to make a person nostalgic for the Brat Pack.
Get the Film Club Newsletter
Stay up to date on the best new movies with our critics' latest reviews, interviews and trailers for the films coming to a theater near you each week.