3 April 2005 | soymilk
It doesn't so much bite as it does nip
Any film striving to chart the up-to-the-minute details of twenty-something life in 1994 was bound to feel a tad outdated the second that 1995 had found its cultural niche. And true, 'Reality Bites' was clearly trying so hard to be hip and with the times that there are points when its characters can seem very distant now (there can't be too many people today who'd consider dancing around a gas station like an unrestrained idiot to be a fitting definition of coolness nowadays viewers will probably be more inclined to identify with the clerk looking on with bemusement in that scene). Nonetheless, the uncertainties that come with entering adulthood and establishing a steady independent life of your own in the real world will always be relevant issues to young people no matter what the era, so any flick that deals with them has a fair chance of striking a chord with such an audience (being a young twenty-something myself, they're certainly hot on my own mind). Sadly, they never amount to much more here than the backdrop for a familiar love triangle yarn, albeit the familiar love triangle yarn as you've never seen it before. Our lead girl still gets torn between two guys, each from a different rung on the social ladder, only this time round it's actually the down-to-earth businessman making a healthy living for himself (Michael) who's an amiable mass of benevolence, and the laid-back young musician struggling to make ends meet (Troy) who acts like an offhand, self-righteous bully for much of his screen time. That the film still expects our sympathies to lie in the usual places regardless and root for Troy simply because he's the underdog is just the slightest bit galling (let's ignore the fact that Leliana, the lucky heroine who has the honour of choosing between them, is something of a whiny, irresponsible brat herself). Perhaps the only thing more fatal than choosing to go with such a wearisome and predictable formula is using characters that don't even comfortably fit it.
Fortunately, 'Reality Bites' does have a number of small redeeming qualities which come along at just the right moments and may make us intermittently forget that this is all going to be part of something very hollow and routine overall. It's stylish, well-crafted and reasonably entertaining, if you can forgive the occasional patch of cringe-inducing dialogue ("I'm a non-practicing Jew" "Hey, I'm a non-practicing virgin" dear lord), and Ben Stiller adds life and flair from whichever side of the camera he's on. His debut direction feels surprisingly accomplished, panning the various scenes from a selection of imaginative angles and connecting them together very smoothly, while his character is easily the most likable and understandable of the bunch (too bad he wasn't meant to be). John Mahoney (better known for his role as Martin Crane in the popular sitcom 'Frasier') has a memorable cameo as a disgruntled TV show host, the soundtrack is filled with lots of little audio treats, and the people in the prop department have certainly provided us with plenty of interesting things to look at it's actually quite fun to watch if you keep your eye out for all the novelty memorabilia that these characters have hoarded; in addition to Michael's beloved Dr Zaius figurine, a Garfield-shaped telephone and a metal 'Charlie's Angels' lunch-box, among others, have made it to the set.
But what really hurts 'Reality Bites' in the end, other than the hackneyed storyline, is just how much depth and substance the protagonists are sorely lacking. Considering that it revolves around a recently-graduated girl determined to demonstrate that she and her friends are more than just shallow Generation X-ers, devoid of any desires that extend beyond having sex and eating pizza, it doesn't exactly do a great deal to convince us otherwise. Most of their time is seemingly devoted to nothing more ambitious than messing around and having spats with each other, while the more serious material, including a subplot which sees Leliana's best friend Vickie awaiting the results of a test for HIV, is downplayed so considerably that you never get the impression that any of them are terribly concerned. The back-stories we hear about rough childhoods of divorced or neglectful parents are equally perfunctory, and the sad fact that Troy's dad is currently dying from prostate cancer is treated very incidentally by the film as a whole - what little is made of it feels more like an emotional blackmail designed to make us feel sympathy for the pretentious Troy than an actual aspect of his character.
It gives us something good every now and then, but overall 'Reality Bites' just isn't strong or satisfying enough to qualify as a coming of age classic (don't even think about comparing it to 'the Graduate', or even 'Risky Business'). While it may go on being fondly-remembered by those who experienced it at the time, on the whole this one feels like it's been rather grounded in 1994, and left with only real claim to fame and that's that it famously beat 'Pulp Fiction' to the rights to have 'My Sharona' on its soundtrack. With hindsight, it was probably 'Pulp Fiction' who had the last laugh.