Reality Bites (1994)

reality bites

“He’s weird, he’s strange, he’s sloppy, he’s a total nightmare for women… I can’t believe I haven’t slept with him yet.”

The Scoop: 1994 R, directed by Ben Stiller and starring Winona Ryder, Ethan Hawke and Ben Stiller

Tagline: A comedy about love in the 90’s.

Summary Capsule: If you’ve never seen a mid-90’s movie, allow me to summarize for you: a group of twentysomething friends live, philosophize and sleep together while damning the Man and avoiding work. Set to a good soundtrack.

Drew’s rating: Really, that’s the best tagline they could come up with? I mean, for true?

Drew’s review: You can always tell a movie made by Gen Xers, can’t you? They all feature tragically hip, ironic people hanging around coffeehouses, smoking cigarettes and doing the exact opposite of whatever a character in an ’80s movie would do. If an ’80s character would concoct a kooky scheme to dump liquid heat on the principal’s head while keeping developers from bulldozing the local hangout, a ’90s character will happily drop out of school, write a soulful guitar ballad about how the system’s keeping him down, then watch the hangout get demolished and promise the owner he’ll rebuild it using the money he makes opening for Nirvana. I’m not saying one’s better or worse than the other, but Reality Bites is unequivocally a ’90s movie, one of the cornerstones of the genre. Don’t expect to see anyone having a montage or wearing bras on their heads, is what I’m saying.

Recent valedictorian Lelaina (Ryder) wants to be a filmmaker but is stuck as a lowly production assistant, nursing a growing suspicion that academic excellence means exactly squat in the real world. Vickie, by virtue of being played by Janeane Garofalo, is her cynical, too-cool-for-school best friend who keeps a written tally of every guy she shtoinks. (Current score: 66, a higher total than some entire soccer teams I’ve known, not that I am judging.) Meanwhile, Troy (Hawke) epitomizes Gen X as the brilliant slacker who reads advanced psychology texts while manning a newsstand, and who just might turn his mutual attraction with Laina into something if he were only capable of not being an ass for five minutes. And Sammy is… uh, also in the movie. (Sorry, I love Steve Zahn, but it’s a pointless role.) Our story really kicks off when Laina meets and begins dating Michael (Stiller), a thoughtful if not terribly bright TV executive who is everything Troy isn’t — nice, motivated, successful, well groomed. Suddenly Troy is even snarkier than usual, while Laina has to deal with not only his jealousy, but also figuring out whether she’ll actually be able to make a difference by 23. (If so, she’s got me beat… I didn’t become a Mutant Reviewer til I was 24.)

So, Reality Bites. One of those movies you know by name and strongly suspect everyone but you has seen, but just never got around to. In my case, it sat in my DVR unwatched for almost a year. (It’s the entry right before Michael Phelps’ races from Beijing, if that tells you anything.) It took being unemployed to finally bring me around to watching it, and now that I have, I can safely report: yeah, it’s not bad. That probably sounds underwhelming, but honestly, it is a decent movie. It just doesn’t pack the humor of a Clerks or (stepping back a decade) the depth of a Breakfast Club, and that’s kind of what I was expecting, so it suffers a bit in the comparison. Taken as its own movie, though, you could do a lot worse. If nothing else, it’s an excellent case study on the fashions and attitudes of the early to mid-90s.

My biggest problem with Reality Bites is the whole Lelaina/Michael/Troy love triangle, which unfortunately is the driving force of the film. More specifically it’s that for 95% of the movie, we never, ever see Troy do anything nice. Yes, it’s 1994 and he has greasy long hair and plays guitar, so naturally he can bed any woman he wants, but we’re given to understand that Laina is above all that. Believe me, I understand not wanting to be with someone who isn’t as bright as you- I once dated a very sweet girl who was cute and affectionate and came from a good family, but who I had to explain every joke to, and it just never would have worked. (As opposed to my wife, who gets the jokes but just doesn’t think they’re funny.) But Laina’s problem with Michael doesn’t seem to be that he isn’t smart, simply that he isn’t Troy. I know, the heart wants what it wants, and I give them credit for not making Michael, symbol of ladder-climbing corporate consumerism, secretly a jerk while the free thinking, brilliant-but-unmotivated Troy is really a teddy bear underneath all his cynicism. But it does make it hard for me to root for Troy and the life of missed job interviews and lung cancer and unpaid rent he can offer Lelaina, as opposed to the awkward, dopey but dependable Michael. Which, I suppose, highlights the difference between the early 90’s mindset and today.

But when all’s said and done, it’s a fairly ordinary romantic comedy that breaks the mold just a bit through the inclusion of the gay friend, the slutty friend, the douchebag love interest, and various other ’90s trappings. Take it for what it is, a somewhat interesting reminder of the Generation X mentality circa 15 years ago, and try not to think too hard about where Troy would be right now. (Filling up your tank at the local Gas N’ Go and bitching about his dolt of a manager, John Bender.) It doesn’t take as many risks as some of its ’90s brethren, but there are some good lines and you probably won’t hate most of the characters, though you may wish some of them had gotten more screen time. I know that sounds like damning with faint praise, but that’s the way it goes. Reality doesn’t bite, but it doesn’t knock it out of the park either.

The real mystery is how Garofalo managed to find 66 dudes willing to do her with that hair.


  • This is Ben Stiller’s directorial debut. The scriptwriter, Helen Childress, wrote it while still in college. In France it was retitled “Generation 90.” Aaaand… that’s all I got.
  • Am I the only one who looked at Vickie’s sexual tally and immediately thought of Mallrats? Too bad you didn’t include rankings, Vick, or that could’ve been a book deal.
  • Cameo alert: Ben Stiller’s sister voices the phone psychic, and Soul Asylum frontman Dave Piner (Ryder’s boyfriend at the time) appears briefly in the background of Laina’s documentary.
  • Cameo alert 2: Renee Zellweger makes her film debut in a minor role.
  • I know you’ll join me in condemning the filmmakers for unforgivable sloppiness over the fact that the characters are shown drinking Big Gulps, but there weren’t any 7-11’s in Houston in 1994. Amateurs.
  • Is It Worth Staying Through The End Credits? There’s one funny scene that plays midway through the credits, which shows Laina’s documentary reinterpreted by Michael’s network, Melrose Place-style.

Groovy Quotes

Vickie: Here’s the deal- I’m gonna take Sam, against his will, and straighten him out. Because I truly believe that if we can get two women on the Supreme Court, we can get at least one on you, Sam.

Lelaina: Oh yeah, look who’s mocking. All you do around here, Troy, is eat and couch and fondle the remote control.
Troy: I am not under any orders to make the world a better place.
Lelaina: Well, then what good are you?
Troy: You’re a pathological optimist.
Lelaina: You’re pathological.
Vickie: Oh, why don’t you guys just do it and get it over with, I’m starving.

Troy: There’s no point to any of this. It’s all just a… a random lottery of meaningless tragedy and a series of near escapes. So I take pleasure in the details. You know… a quarter pounder with cheese, those are good. The sky about ten minutes before it starts to rain. The moment where your laughter becomes a cackle. And I sit back and I smoke my Camel Straights and I ride my own melt.

Vickie: All right, we’re just trying to pay bills here, okay? So Troy, if you’ve got any money…
Lelaina: Money? Oh, but what’s money to an artist? To a philosopher? It’s just green-colored paper that floats in and out of his life like snow. It’s not anything you actually have to, I don’t know, work for, is it Troy?
Troy: No, not if you have daddy’s little gas card.
Lelaina: You shut up, I busted my ass to find a job, any job. You won’t even bother showing up for interviews.
Troy: What is it that you want from me, huh? You want me to get a job on the line for the next 20 years til I’m granted leave with my gold-plated watch and my balls full of tumors because I surrendered the one thing that means [crap] to me? Well, you can just exhale because it’s not gonna happen, not in this lifetime!

Vickie: He’s weird, he’s strange, he’s sloppy, he’s a total nightmare for women… I can’t believe I haven’t slept with him yet.

Sammy: Ma!
Vickie: I’m right here, son.
Sammy: Ma, I have to tell you some… thing. I am a homos-… sexual.
Vickie: Oh… Christ. Is there a support group that I can join to help me come to terms with my own homophobia?
Sammy: Yes, there is a group which is named PFLAG. Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays.
Vickie: Oh… oh, PFLAG. I’m beginning to like the sound of that.
Sammy: What you just witnessed here is a preenactment of events that are about to take place.

Michael: Have I stepped over some line in the sand of coolness with you? Because excuse me if somebody doesn’t know the secret handshake with you.
Troy: There’s no secret handshake. There’s an IQ prerequisite, but there’s no secret handshake.

Troy: Besides, everyone dies all by himself.
Michael: If you really believe that, who are you looking for out here?

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