Reality Bites

(Ben Stiller, USA, 1994)


Have you heard the one about Generation X?

As an endless stream of books, magazine and newspaper articles currently tell us, this is the predominantly twentysomething generation of kids who are aliens in our midst. They have been nurtured by television, thrown into a world where they can expect to be unemployable, and behave in a completely amoral, nihilistic, zoned-out fashion. Oh, and one more thing – they hate the "Woodstock generation" of privileged baby boomers.

Anyone who has ever embraced punk music, Nietzschean philosophy or Tim Hunter's classic River's Edge (1986) might well be a little peeved to see the marketeers of Generation X greedily claiming experiences and ideas which have been around, in one form or another, for ages. Be that as it may, a new wave of twisted love stories is now upon us, featuring a glamorous ensemble of young things poised between university, the dole queue, and spectacular careers in showbiz, fashion, media and the artworld.

Reality Bites offers a sanitised, lightweight and ultimately rather old-fashioned view of the Generation X ethos. We are very far from the serial killers, sexual perversities and suicidal levels of substance abuse that characterise Bret Easton Ellis' novels. As a group portrait this is more like The Big Chill (1983), and as a romantic comedy about a gal (Winona Ryder) poised between two guys (Ethan Hawke and Ben Stiller) it edges towards When Harry Met Sally (1989) territory.

Ryder plays a character who spends her quality time making a personal "video verite" document of her social circle. Naturally, we never actually see this deathless masterpiece, only the re-edited "travesty" of it aired on MTV. But our heroine suffers from a chronic Generation X ambivalence about mainstream media: as much as she hates the major networks, she still considers Melrose Place to be a truthful depiction of modern life.

A similar ambivalence afflicts her love life. On the one hand, Hawke is an artist – visionary and tormented like Van Gogh, but unable to "commit". On the other hand, Stiller is a neo-corporate type, offering emotional stability and career opportunities. The outcome to all these dilemmas is shamelessly contrived, but Reality Bites provides along the way a few interesting snippets of contemporary sociology, movie-style. And the "My Sharona" dance-in-the-supermarket scene is indelible.

MORE Stiller: The Cable Guy, Zoolander

MORE modern love: Three of Hearts, Bodies, Rest and Motion, Tempo

© Adrian Martin January 1995

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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