'Reality Bites' dissects the twentysomethings

February 18, 1994|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,Sun Film Critic

Hands down, "Reality Bites" wins the award for best title of 1994. Excellent title! Superb title!

In one of its meanings, it conveys exactly the method of the movie to which it is attached: bites, acerbic and zingy, of a certain reality, at the expense therefore of a bigger picture. In its other meaning, it communicates attitude: Reality "bites" in the sense that reality "stinks," a time-honored lament of every generation that fancies itself, in a long peal of glamorous and self-imposed nihilism, lost. Which is to say: every generation.

The movie looks at a quartet of recent Houston elite-school university graduates (the school is not specified) who suffer the familiar soul-deep weariness and angst that being young seems to confer on those with too much education, too high expectations and not enough ambition. Easy great jobs are not to be handed to them! They are expected to actually -- ugh! -- work! The betrayal! The indignity! The pain of it all!

The high priest of this crew is Troy Dyer, with the shag of artistically mussed hair, a proud wardrobe of 10-year-old Kmart plaid shirts and Trotsky's cute little goatee, as well-played by Ethan Hawke in high trances of lyric suffering. Troy will be a familiar figure to any male who ever tried to get girls by spouting poetry (Rilke, though Yeats will do in a pinch) and affecting a style of anomie and dissipation originally pioneered in the early '20s by survivors of the Western Front, who really did have something to feel gloomy about.

The enduring and domineering relationship in Troy's life isn't with the world -- his interface with the workplace being somewhat iffy -- but his thing with Lelaina Pierce (Winona Ryder). It's one of those love-hate deals, richer than friendship, as yet unsullied by sex, built of dangerous intimacies and shared vulnerabilities, insights that may be illusions and vanities that may be truths. But also tarnished by vivid gleams of hostility and fear.

For Lelaina -- truly the Zeitgeist of the film, dazzling and haunted and adorable at once -- really does have talent. She's a documentarian who sees in her twisted crowd -- her closest friend and roommate Vickie (Janeane Garofalo) charts her lovers while rising into GAP management at the local mall; and poor, nearly wordless Sammy (Steve Zahn) is a closet homosexual who seems to be melting under pressure of his secret life -- a larger picture of her generation. With a video camera, she's able to get at the very Xness of Generation X (the movie cuts, affectingly, between film stock and Lelaina's video stock transferred to film). She's tough, empathetic and astute, a baby D. A. Pennebaker, and the film is wonderful at conveying the incredible lightness of being that is talent as it comes to occupy ++ a young man or woman's head.

That's probably part of the problem between Lelaina and Troy. A sometime bar singer but more habitual layabout, he wants to be an artist and knows everything about the artistic life. She is an artist. Scary. But hers is not an ideal life: a production assistant on a dreary "Good Morning" type show, she's clearly overqualified and shackled by an overbearing host who is not interested in what she can do (John Mahoney, very funny).

When a car accident brings a new suitor into her life -- Ben Stiller, who also directs -- a whole set of complications is introduced. Michael is the head of a rip-off MTV network and can actually get Lelaina's work a showing. To Troy, Michael represents everything he fears: actual accomplishment, tawdry values, the unexamined life (he drives a BMW, for crying out loud). Michael, in other words, is like a Baby Boom Agent Orange sprayed into the hothouse of Generation X pieties: that you can't win, that nobody cares, that nothing matters. He offers the terrible possibility that you can win, that everybody cares, that everything matters.

Obviously, this attacks everything Troy hasn't worked hard to get and which is therefore so meaningful. So he sets out to win back a woman he never really had.

Alas, the "triangle" aspects of "Reality Bites" aren't nearly as amusing as its anthropology. This concession to bourgeoise plot is the movie's least impressive note and Stiller doesn't help matters by allowing himself a cuddly love-me-do personality that seems completely at odds with the dynamics of his success.

The best -- the brilliant -- bits of "Reality Bites" etch in epigram, anecdote and brittle, dazzling dialogue the inner life of young people who want desperately to believe but haven't decided in what. It loves them but it doesn't pity or sentimentalize them. It's tough as nails.

The 23-year-old screenwriter Helen Childress is so far beyond mere promise it's awesome and a little frightening. Equally adept at wicked one-liners or more complex situational comedy formats, as well as capable of brilliantly evoking character, she gives "Reality Bites" the snap that lingers. Her teeth are sharp and they draw blood.

"Reality Bites"

Starring Winona Ryder and Ethan Hawke

Directed by Ben Stiller

Released by Universal

PG-13

***

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