Monday, November 9, 2009

Reality Bites (1994)

I must admit that a certain awe washed over me as I viewed Reality Bites, its iconography and soundtrack easily described as seminal, albeit dated. The story boils down to a simple love triangle (rendering sidekicks Janeane Garafalo and Steve Zahn somewhat moot - the latter especially), but it's a rare thing to see anew such a concrete relic of a time long gone by and still find it relevant.

Relevance, of course, is in the eye of the beholder. "The film," a great man once told me, "is extant, see." What changes over time is the viewer. A 2009 audience for Reality Bites will find itself giggling at the hair and dress (presumably we haven't yet distanced ourselves enough from the styles of the 90s to have found any affection for them), but we do have a recession to call our own, and I'm sure I'm not the only twentysomething currently engaging with bouts of unemployment, existential crisis and diseases du jour (not to compare the Swine Flu of '09 Chicago to the AIDS of '94 Houston, but panicking is as panicking does).

I have no choice but to view Ben Stiller's feature directorial debut as a misleading (but effective) tragedy (his subsequent work does have threads of darkness running through it, but perhaps after the unfortunate box office for The Cable Guy he has retreated to Reality's more swallowable mainstream facade). Stiller casts himself as Michael, the baxter of the triangle, stuttering and schmucking up his love affair with Winona Ryder's Lelaina like a good little Jewish boy. His obstacle to Lelaina's heart is Troy.

Troy is Ethan Hawke, the perpetually unshowered it-boy of 1994. He smokes (pot, tobacco), drinks (coffee, beer) and fucks (anyone). The only member of the gang who managed not to complete college by the opening credits (and to drop out of a BFA program no less - what a rebel!), Troy has been fired from twelve different jobs and hangs out in diners reading philosophy. All you need is coffee, cigarettes and conversation, he tells Lelaina before sticking his tongue down her throat at the beginning of the second act. Prior to this he has been crashing on the couch she shares with Garafalo's Vicky after losing his job and consequently his apartment. The only constant in his life is his post-Nirvana rock band, Hey, That's My Bike!.

This is the second movie I've encountered in my adult life where I found myself actively rooting against the intended romantic pairing. The first was Wicker Park (I blame this on Rose Byrne being infinitely more layered, interesting, sympathetic - choose your adjective - than Diane Kruger, even if she is a little crazy), and in neither case have I ended up faulting the movie as qualititavely bad. But I'm fascinated that Lelaina's triumphant dive into the arms of a deadbeat is posited here as a happy ending, even as her father is calling to deliver the punchline that she has driven him into almost a thousand dollars worth of debt.

The love triangle is mere allegory for the decisions Lelaina must make as she leaves college for the real world. While Troy is a glamorized modern bohemian (and let us not forget, in any discussion of Troy, the bohemian's tendency to gloss over the "starving" part of being an "artist"), Michael is the financially stable yuppie. He meets Lelaina after crashing his car into her's (his driving while talking on the phone clearly a novelty in '94 - but let's not forget she did throw her cigarette butt onto his passenger seat) and then wins her over by ignoring his lawyer's suggestion that he sue. As her relationship with Michael blossoms, her relationship with Troy withers, and soon both men are spouting one-liners at each other. They both make excellent points: Michael does look ridiculous in his tie, while Troy, alas, cannot survive for long on credoes and Snickers bars. Michael is poised to win Lelaina over by delivering her handmade documentary chronicle of her friends' post-grad struggles to his "In Your FACE" sub-MTV cable network.

Essentially, Lelaina is forced to choose between the déclassé life of being paid to perform the artistry that is her passion (selling out) or, y'know, making out with Ethan Hawke.

If there is any possibility that she could both have a career and find love, the film isn't interested in suggesting it. Her decision is made for her when Michael's network re-edits her documentary into a crass, drugged up Pizza Hut advert. The dramatic tidiness of this, however, is dissolved by Michael's insistence that he had no idea they were doing that to her art and his purchase of two plane tickets to New York, where they can fix the problem.

The variable we can't count on, I suppose, is "love", which Lainey apparently has for Troy in spades and carries her through a long montage in which we get to witness how expertly Winona Ryder can smoke a cigarette while staring at the wall and pouting. Michael makes one mistake, and if we are to accept Lelaina's affections for him as sincere, there is no reason for her not to choose him other than the 'L' word or the fact that Ethan Hawke is very, very good looking.

In the final shot of the movie, Lainey and Troy are packing up the apartment, and as neither has got any job to speak of, I can only read this as their having lost the lease. Reality does, in fact, bite quite hard, Lainey learns, and none of her problems (career, money, artistic ambition) are resolved in any way. All she has is Troy, and we've seen that he has trouble amounting to much of anything. What a downer.

No comments:

Post a Comment