Ben Stiller, who directed Reality Bites, also co-stars in it. He plays Michael, one point on a romantic triangle of Generation Xers (isn't it amazing how quickly that term grew tiresome?). Michael is a well-to-do yupster, a producer for a vapid music-video network. Point number two is Troy (Ethan Hawke), a handsome, brilliant philosophy major and rock musician who's so angry at the screwed-up world that he can't hold a job for more than a couple of days. Guess which one is fated to end up with point three, the aspiring video documentarian Lelaina (Winona Ryder)?
Helen Childress' script is set up for us to root for the brooding Troy over the likable goof Michael, who's a born supporting character--we're supposed to see that, though he's a nice guy, Michael is far too crassly stable and content to be worthy of the love of a hothouse flower like Lelaina. Only a seething, James Deanish, emotional wreck like Troy, who treats her like dirt 90 percent of the time, could win her. There's a whiff of recognizable reality to this, but then, as the title asserts, reality sometimes bites.
The trouble with the film as it's intended is that the performances of the two male stars subvert our sympathies completely. Hawke gives his usual self-infatuated performance, so Troy is exactly what his lines make him out to be--a cranky, listless, navel-gazing butthead.
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Conversely, as Michael, Stiller has it all--looks, modesty, heart and the charm of the slyly worshipful. We're entirely prepared to forgive him his despicably puerile music-video work. It's been clear for several years now, to the minority who were aware of Stiller (through his regrettably short-lived TV show), that he is very nearly a prodigy when it comes to scathing parody. But it would have been hard to predict from his TV work that he would also have the makings of a first-rate light romantic star as well. I've said nothing descriptive up to this point about Lelaina because, even though she's the main character, she seems curiously unimportant. Partly, this is the script--it's another case of a female character being defined by which of two men she chooses (when a male movie character chooses between two women, his choice defines them).
But partly, it's just Ryder. She's not an embarrassing or incompetent actress (that might almost be a relief), but the very trait which made her perfect as May Welland in The Age of Innocence--her utter lack of a distinctive on-screen personality--makes her vanish here.
As with his performance, Stiller's energetic direction outclasses the material. In a sense, this is to the movie's benefit--who'd want to see this script rendered in the utterly routine, precious manner it was evidently intended? For the first half, while it's simply cataloguing the Seventies-TV references that lace the characters' chatter, Reality Bites is enjoyable enough, thanks mainly to the amusing performances of Janeane Garofalo as Lelaina's roomie and Steve Zahn as Troy's friend, and a sterling cameo by the admirable John Mahoney as a wretched talk-show host.
But when, in the second half, the film switches to the triangle plot in earnest, thereby letting every other plot element drop unresolved, the dialogue turns really flatulent. Our heroine wonders aloud why "things can't just go back to normal at the end of a half-hour, like on The Brady Bunch." To which--I'm not kidding--Troy solemnly replies, "Because Mr. Brady died of AIDS." If anyone else had made Reality Bites, Stiller could have lampooned it ferociously.