Monday, May 5, 2014

Retro Review: Reality Bites

 A note from the Cap'n: Retro Reviews are different from normal Blogorium Reviews in that they deal less with the film and more with the evolving relationship between the movie and its audience (in this case, the Cap'n). As a result, they tend to be more anecdotal and will often lack a synopsis, and will often assume that anyone reading this has also seen the film at some point. For good examples of what a Retro Review is like, I suggest reading Dazed and Confused or Tron entries in the series.

 I had the strangest sensation while watching Reality Bites for the first time in a very long time (possibly since it came out twenty years ago): for the life of me, I couldn't remember what happened in the movie. I know I've seen it, and that assertion was reinforced when scenes I could remember vividly popped up (the rooftop sequence at the beginning, the gas card scam, the premiere of Leilana's documentary at In Your Face TV, Troy standing in front of the apartment in a suit), but watching it again, I had no idea where the movie was going. It was refreshing, in a sense, because it gave me the opportunity to watch Reality Bites again for the first time, fondly recalling moments but generally unfamiliar with its story.

 Reality Bites is, in many ways, a natural extension of Say Anything, even though they don't have the same writers, directors, or cast members (save for one small role). In the retrospective documentary (from the tenth anniversary DVD) included, one of the producers mentions that he thinks Reality Bites is in the same category as Cameron Crowe and John Hughes films, and I think that's pretty accurate. It has a lot in common, thematically, with Say Anything, as they are roughly spaced apart to deal with graduating from high school (Say Anything) and then college (Reality Bites) and the five years between films is reflective of particular trends from the end of the 80s (Lloyd's fascination with kick-boxing) and the middle of the 90s (the commodification of "Generation X").

 More importantly, they both share a similar thematic thread with Richard Linklater's Dazed and Confused (released, appropriately, between the two films), about the feeling of helplessness and directionless-ness in a world of "what we were promised" vs. "reality." It's a universal theme, and one that resonates particularly with young adults from high school to their mid-twenties - not coincidentally the exact age ranges of all three films - and while I'm a generation removed from the characters in Reality Bites, the experience is still identifiable. More interesting than that was seeing the film from the other side of thirty: in that respect, Reality Bites encapsulates everything that was good, bad, and ridiculous about those heady times of "what do I do with my life?" in the wake of college.

  While I remembered that Winona Ryder (Leilana) and Ethan Hawke (Troy) were the stars alongside Ben Stiller (Michael) - making his directorial and starring debut - and I had some passing remembrance of Janeane Garofalo (Vickie) being in the film (mostly from the "My Sharona" video tie-in), I had completely forgotten that Steve Zahn (Sammy) fills out the group, let alone that he had his own narrative arc about being closeted and afraid to come out to his mother. It's not a major part of the film, but Sammy's story is probably the most important part of Leilana's in-progress documentary about the lives of her friends, post-college. Tellingly, it's also the part completely removed when In Your Face TV buys the footage and turns it into a Real World knock-off.

 Which brings us to the bulk of Reality Bites' story, if you want to call it that - the love triangle between Leilana, Michael, and Troy. You can probably guess from the poster that's what Reality Bites is "about," and the contrast between the bohemian Troy and the buttoned up Michael is what drives most of the conflict in the latter part of the film, but it might also be the one weak point in the film. For better or for worse, Reality Bites is about Leilana being torn between the world she knows (her friends and a carefree, albeit aimless lifestyle) and the world she feels like she's supposed to be in post-graduation (a career, carving out her own space in the world, responsibility). It's not always clear what side screenwriter Helen Childress is leaning towards, even at the end, when Leilana makes the figurative choice by choosing her lover and the somewhat ambiguous closing shot that follows.

 I guess after twenty years, the statute of limitations is pretty much over for SPOILERs, and it's not going to blow anybody's mind that she chooses Troy over Michael, although there's some question of what changes he went through while in Chicago near the end of the film. Michael is amiable, and well meaning, but is never really a viable option for Leilana. What's interesting is that while I initially thought she went with the "Lloyd Dobler" of her respective film, I'm starting to doubt that. Troy is the lovable loser, to a degree, but he's also emotionally manipulative, insensitive, and at various times is cruel to nearly every character, and not simply in a "I'm smarter than you" way. In some ways, Michael is more like Lloyd in that he means well but doesn't know how to function in the world he finds himself.

 Now, is it possible that I'm giving Michael more of the benefit of the doubt because where I am in life and what I'm doing is closer to where he is than where Troy is? Yes, that's certainly possible. There is an aspect of being in your twenties that scoffs at characters like Michael (his last name is, not coincidentally, Grates), people who "work for the system." (There's a great joke about that in Ghost World, another movie about post-graduation angst, about a character desperately trying to convince Enid he's not "selling out" by "taking the system down from within"). I'm not saying there's something inherently wrong with Troy's nihilistic take on the world, but when Leilana calls him out on not being able to commit to anything, there's more than a kernel of truth to it. Michael is meant to represent everything that's wrong about corporate America and, I suppose, be a sort of 90s version of an Alex Keaton, but Stiller has an inherent likability that keeps him from being a stereotype.

 Yes, he sells Leilana's footage to the network he works for, naively thinking they won't take it and re-edit it to commercialize twenty-something angst in order to sell pizza. And yes, when faced with the truth that of course they would, he rationalizes it horribly (comparing it to tricking children into eating meatloaf), but he does make a sincere effort to make things right before realizing it's too late. He also calls out Troy on his "indifference" act towards Leilana when everybody else feeds off of their "will they or won't they" chemistry. His character represents everything that young people who want to be wild and free are afraid of, and the very end of the film hints that his experience pushes him further down that rabbit hole, but I don't question his sincerity about caring about Leilana for most of the film.

 The last part, after the "new apartment" shot with Troy and Leilana, is one of many shots Stiller takes at MTV - a fictionalized version of the documentary with former VJ Karen Duffy and Lemonheads frontman Evan Dando as surrogates for the main characters. In Your Face TV also has a parody of House of Style, with a Cindy Crawford stand-in "reporting" on fashionable gang apparel. Stiller also sneaks in Soul Asylum's Dave Pirner as one of Vickie's many "boyfriends" during the documentary, and a few Real World cast members in small roles in the film. While more subtle than Tropic Thunder, the targets of Stiller's satiric ire are evident even in his first film. What's also interesting is how less overtly comedic Reality Bites is. It's not unfair to compare it to John Hughes or Cameron Crowe films in that it fits somewhere between comedy and drama and slips back and forth between the two, often effortlessly.

 I'd be remiss in not mentioning the supporting cast (particularly the adults), many of whom I'd completely forgotten were in the film. Every one of the four main friends in the film come from broken families, although we only meet one. After her commencement speech, there's an awkward dinner with Leilana's mother (Swoosie Kurtz) and father (Joe Don Baker) and their respective new spouses (Harry O'Reilly and Susan Norfleet) that hints not only at the tenuous relationships she has with both parents, but also her unwillingness to accept a "status symbol" (her father's old BMW*). Leilana's first job out of college is working for Good Morning Grant!, hosted by the outwardly jubilant Grant Gubler (John Mahoney, who was in Say Anything), a man who is anything but friendly when the cameras are off. After being fired for sabotaging his show, Leilana seems incapable of making a good impression during interviews with potential employers, who include Ben Stiller Show alum Andy Dick, David Spade, Keith David, and Stiller's mother, Anne Meara. (His sister, Amy, plays the voice of the psychic that Leilana runs up a $400 phone bill talking to.)

 The interview scenes, by the way, serve as an interesting counterpoint to how we've seen Leilana up to this point: she seemed to be the most "together" of the four of them, and her blunt dismissal of Vickie's offer to work for her at The Gap does make sense for what we know about her. If she really has a plan and has it together, then it would be a "step down," and insult Vickie takes to heart. However, when Leilana runs out of options in TV production (David flat out turns her down, Meara doubts she can handle newspapers, and Dick is hiring a video pirate), Spade's fast food job turns out to be too much for her to process. Leilana not only doesn't know what the word "irony" means, but she lacks basic math skills. She's not actually as well adjusted as we thought, so Michael's offer to buy the documentary isn't as much of a moral quandary as you would think.

 Watching Reality Bites again, with both life experience beyond the characters but also no memory of where the film was headed was interesting. When I first saw it, I was in high school, and at least six or seven years younger than the protagonists. Their cultural points of reference were (and still are) different: watching it now, I still don't have the same affinity for songs like "My Sharona" or "Tempted" that Vickie and Leilana do. On the flipside, seeing the film this much later (and not remembering that it happened at all) gave me a better appreciation for Troy's cover of "Add It Up" late in the film. I'm not sure if it was Troy's room or Leilana's, but one of them has a poster for Cassavetes' A Woman Under the Influence, which struck me as strange, even for 1994. Still, despite being generationally removed from the characters, I can now look back at that heady era of living with roommates and having "big" ideas about life, the universe, and everything. About how if you had just that one shot, you'd make it big time and change the world.

 And then reality kicks in, and you have to settle for things and take lousy jobs for menial pay. To work for people who hate that they settled for menial pay and stayed there, and who will take it out on you. For your friends to come and go, and sometimes not come back. And yeah, that reality bites. The movie ends with Leilana and Troy together, like Lloyd and Diane, or "Pink" and Simone, heading off somewhere we can't follow them. It's hopeful, but ambiguous, a reminder of the good times. I wonder if someday I'll be looking at The Big Chill with the same affinity? Time will tell...

* Interesting tidbit: for a movie about twenty-somethings who are outwardly anti-commercialistic, there's a shocking amount of product placement throughout the film. Not only is Troy fired for eating a prominently displayed Snickers bar, but on three different occasions you see the group buying Diet Coke, extolling the virtues of the Big Gulp, using a Sprite can to smoke pot, and mentions of preferring Camel Straights and Quarter Pounders with cheese. The last two, buy the way, come from Troy.

No comments: