Viking Night: Reality Bites
By Bruce Hall
February 3, 2015
When a director casts himself in a movie, you learn a thing or two about him. In the case of Woody Allen, I usually take it to mean he’s really into younger women. Much younger women. In the case of Reality Bites, I take it to mean that Ben Stiller is a guy who’s really aware of himself. In this, his directorial debut, he casts himself alongside one-time squeeze Janeane Garofalo and as a suitor to the inimitably adorable Winona Ryder. I consider this a wise move. If I were allowed to direct a movie, I too would immediately cast an ex-girlfriend and then make her watch me make out with Winona Ryder. But this is because I have a tendency to become drunk with power whenever I have it. Stiller, as I have suggested, is a smarter man than I am.
Reality Bites is based on an original story by (then) first time screenwriter Helen Childress, which is in turn based (to some degree) on her own life events. Because of this, and the year in which it was released, this makes the film for many a spiritual successor to St Elmo’s Fire. Every decade seems to require its own artistic interpretation of the same things, and apparently growing up in your 20s is no exception. Both movies became minor cultural and generational touchstones; the big difference being that Reality Bites is famous for being kind of entertaining, and St. Elmo’s Fire is only famous because of who’s IN it.
That said, if you’re a fan of the coming-of-age genre, or are into acting like you’re the only person on earth with problems, Reality Bites should feel like familiar turf. Winona Ryder is Lelaina, an idealistic valedictorian who hopes to one day change the world through the power of documentary filmmaking. Ethan Hawke is Troy Dyer, a prototypical Gen-X slacker (or what today would be called a “hipster douche”) whose ample intelligence is more than offset by a complete and utter lack of ambition. Janeane Garofalo is Vickie Miner, Lelaina’s best friend and Troy’s consistent runner up in the How to Get Ahead in Life Without Trying sweepstakes. And then there’s Sammy (Steve Zahn), whose defining character trait is pretty obvious, but I won’t ruin it for you here.
Having been friends all through college, the four end up more or less living together in the house Lelaina and Vickie rent in semi-suburban Houston. Troy is a chronically unemployed musician who thinks the world should throw him a parade for having above average intelligence. Vickie deals with problems by sleeping with as many men as she possibly can and keeping a detailed, kaleidoscopic bang-diary of her conquests. Winona toils away as a production assistant on an insipid morning show, her obvious talent going unappreciated by her cynical, demanding boss. And Sammy kind of hangs around on the periphery of the story, being really friendly and looking really out of place. Lelaina more or less supports the tribe while everyone else spends their free time getting high and drinking the kind of beer you can only afford when someone in the house has a job on TV.