Movies That Settle: Reality Bites (No, really)

Posted: January 14, 2016 in Movies That Settle, Uncategorized

When I was 17, I worked in a small, two-screen movie theater in Weymouth, MA, called the Cameo Theatre (note the English spelling, to connote that it was old, bot that it was fancy.) I made minimum wage, which at the time was $4.25 an hour, and each employee also got six free passes a month to go to the Cameo’s sister theater, which had actual first-run movies. The Cameo usually got the duds (We did play Alec Baldwin’s The Shadow first-run, so there’s that.) The employees, who were mostly 17 or 18 like myself, had an inside joke where we would drive by and yell, “Cameo Theater sucks!” at the top of our lungs during the summer when the doors were open. Despite the sucking, it may have been the best job I ever had.


The corporate honchos at Patriot’s Cinemas, the Cameo’s parent company, did try to get movies that they thought would play well to the locals, as the Cameo was very much a neighborhood establishment. And since there were gaggles of teens around, in the winter of 1994, we got Reality Bites, the Winona Ryder-Ethan Hawke “romantic” comedy that was supposed to be the 90’s version of The Breakfast Club. Obviously, it failed miserably at that (just as it failed to bring the local teens into the Cameo), but for some reason, the fact that I was a ticket-taker for this film gives it a special place in my heart. Part of the reason may be because I invited a group of female classmates to come see it on opening night, and snuck them in for free, and they actually thought I was cool for a change. Yeah, it was definitely that. Certainly wasn’t the Lisa Loeb song.

For those who have forgotten this forgettable movie, here’s the skinny; Winona’s character, Lelaina, who was valedictorian of her un-named university, is a budding filmmaker and has a job as a gopher on a morning talk show. Now, I wasn’t valedictorian, and I don’t think any film major would come close to being valedictorian, but I majored in film, and I probably would have killed for that job back in the day. But Lelaina wants to be an artist, so she is filming a documentary in her spare time about… whatever it is her and her friends are not doing. Unfortunately, since she’s twenty-two and buying groceries with her Dad’s gas card, she hates her life and her job and has no money and no boyfriend, so she’s sad. What she does have is a friendship which is wrought with sexual tension with Troy Dyer, the dreamy do-nothing played by Ethan Hawke. Jobless and homeless, Troy and his sidekick, Steve Zahn’s Sammy, have to move in with Lelaina and her roommate, an aspiring Gap manager played by Janeane Garafalo (Allow me to channel my inner Chandler Bing and ask: “Could this cast be any more 90’s?”). While the four of them living together seems like a recipe for disaster, I think I would like to live in a part of the world where two recent college grads can afford the rent for an apartment that can comfortably house four pretentious idiots.

The plot thickens when Lelaina begins dating Ben Stiller’s Michael, after a car accident that occurred when she threw her cigarette butt into his convertible. The 1990’s lesson here? Smoking can be good for you! Michael works for “In Your Face,” a made-up-for-the-movie MTV, “but with an edge.” Michael is awkward and wears a suit, and is boning his love interest, so Troy instantly despises him. Tensions run high, until Michael shows Lelaina’s doc footage on “In Your Face,” and it’s been edited and MTV-ized to make it more commercial. Too commercial as it turns out, as Lelaina leaves him and her big opportunity and runs into the arms of Troy The Bum. After sleeping with each other for the first time after years of built-up sexual tension, Troy freaks out, they have a fight, and he goes on stage (because of course, he’s in a band) and sings the Violent Femmes’ “Add It Up,” which features the totally appropriate lyric, “Why Can’t I Get Just One Screw?” Despite the harshness of that, and the emotional unavailability, the pretentiousness, and the unemployment, Lelaina decides that Troy and his nasty brown shirt are just too dreamy, and tells Michael, who has a job and a convertible and really does care about her, to go screw. It was the 90’s.

Add to that the product placement, the pop culture references, Vicky’s AIDS scare, Sammy coming out to his parents, the alternative soundtrack (which, ok, is pretty awesome) and the broad characterizations, and what we basically have is a 99 minute episode of The Real World. But that’s just the surface-level stuff. There is slightly more going on here, if you choose to look closer.

This is Ben Stiller’s first shot in the director’s chair, and he may have been young-ish, but he was no fool. Despite all of what I said above, the movie does have heart, and it totally captures what was going on in young America in 1994. We had been told our whole lives that we were unique and we could do whatever we wanted in life as long as we had the passion and the drive, and the blah, blah, blah. But it’s kind of a lie, because not everyone is going to end up doing whatever they want, because otherwise nobody would clean toilets for a living, unless they just don’t have the drive, or that happens to be their passion. Still, I was a lot like Lelaina back then, except way more cynical. But I did follow my friends around with a video camera because I thought everything we did was so poignant and funny. And I had friends who were like Troy, only way less dirty. So, while it seems like these characters are all mere tropes, they seemed all too real to me. The scary thing is thinking about what came first, the tropes, or the actual people acting like that? Did Ben Stiller make a movie that mirrored real life, or did people act that way because it was instilled in us by pop culture?

And what’s really scary is that the characters still seem real all these years later. Here’s why:

  • I feel like Troy and Lelaina probably dated for a few years, through various highs and lows, until she grew tired of him not being able to commit to anything except a hobo lifestyle and they parted ways. She then went through her “fag-hag” phase, where she decided that no man could ever love her like a a gay man could. She finally did meet Mr. Right, who was pretty much an older version of Michael, while working her desk job, and lives with him and their two kids in the suburbs. She probably writes a food blog.



  • Troy Dyer drifted from job to job, supporting his drug habit along the way, and yet somehow always landing on his feet. Eventually he cleaned himself up and settled down and had a family. All of his friends thought he was amazing for pulling himself out of the gutter, when all he really did was stop screwing up his life. But people love a good yarn. One of my favorite movie lines of all-time, which may or may not apply here? George Clooney in Oh, Brother, Where Art Thou?I guess hard times’ll flush the chumps!
  • Even though the movie tried to paint Sammy as The Other for being “the gay  one,” he was by far the most normal one of them all, and his current life probably reflects that. And being a normal 40-something is a very cool thing to be these days.
  • Vicky Miner still works at the Gap.

But Michael Grates, the somewhat awkward exec played by Ben Stiller? That’s the guy that I’m interested in, and his character is why the movie settles well with me. I came up with this ridiculous theory while driving back from Vermont recently, and “Baby, I Love Your Way” by Big Mountain was on the radio. It’s totally just made-up B.S. on my part, but it’s my rant, so here goes:

Michael is the second-act version of the character that Stiller later played in The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (which he also directed and starred in). Walter is just as awkward, and single at his age, probably because people like Lelaina have walked all over him his entire life. Walter talked about his father passing away when he was 17, and at the time he had a mohawk and was an avid skate-boarder. But his father’s death forced him to grow up faster than he would have liked and start working to actually earn money (Not because his mother wanted him out of the house, which is how I came to work at the Cameo), so that’s why he had a good job at such a young age in Reality Bites, but dated a younger woman who represented a period of life that he missed out on. Yes, he did have Lelaina’s documentary footage edited to make it more mainstream, but that’s only because he was so much more mature than her that he realized her version would never fly. Maybe it was his longing to do something creative with his life that drew him to her, and was the reasons for his day-dreaming in Walter Mitty, because he was basically making little movies in his head. When the whole 90’s MTV craze thing ended, he then obviously changed his name to Walter Mitty and got a job as a Negative Assets Manager in the Photo Department at Life Magazine. I mean, it’s so obvious.

OK, that last part is a little far-fetched, but what I think it really speaks to is the kind of work that Stiller is drawn to. To him, and in a way to me, Reality Bites isn’t some delightful rom-com of twenty-somethings trying to make it in this topsy-turvy world. It’s a real coming-of-age story, because your 20’s is when you come of age, by making mistakes and learning from them and then, later in life, when you’re Walter Mitty, you can find a much better girl, who is unpretentious and actually funny instead of ironically funny.

And who is obviously Kristen Wiig.


I think Michael/Walter made out all right in the end.

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