Last night I watched Reality Bites for the first time. It’s been in my Netflix insta-play queue ever since tometome posted this quick write-up of it. I went to college with tometome. She is a badass smart chick whose tastes I trust. And anyway, with a recommendation like this, how could I not want to see the movie:
… other times, I just want to watch a low budget movie about angsty white twenty-somethings. Because you can’t have too much angst. And you certainly can’t have too many white people.
So Reality Bites (1994) was the perfect movie for my mood.
Reality Bites has a bunch of stuff going on, but the first thing I noticed was that it is a perfect storm of the 90s. It stars pre-kleptomania Winona Ryder, long-haired Ethan Hawke, Janeane Garofalo before she was Janeane Garofalo, Steve Zahn who despite iMDB saying different I’d swear on a stack of Bibles hasn’t made a movie since You’ve Got Mail (and yes, I saw Shattered Glass but that also stars Peter Sarsgaard and they are identical so my brain just kind of … overwrites with the better actor), and Ben Stiller when he could still arguably be called young and cute. There’s even a non-speaking cameo by Renee Zellweger, which I only noticed because I thought she was Julie Benz. The story hits all kinds of 90s touchstones: AIDS, coming out (not related to AIDS, though! Good job, Reality Bites!), MTV and what it meant to be of the MTV generation, children of divorce, and let’s not even talk about the fashion, sweet Jesus. But here’s what jarred me about it: despite those awful shoes and ill-fitting dresses, the opening scene – on a roof, right after the main characters’ college graduation – could have been shot yesterday for a film coming out tomorrow. I know those people. They’re overeducated and unsure about the worth of their degrees and concerned about the economy they’ve just graduated into, and when Lelaina says she makes $400 a week that doesn’t sound like much until I realize that’s not a lot less than I bring home and is probably substantially more than some of my friends bring home, and that fleabag apartment she and Vickie share? I spent hours in that apartment back in Chicago. Maybe that means the world hasn’t changed much in 20 years, or maybe it means that graduating from college has never been easy and never will be, or maybe, as tometome says, “post collegiate pretension has always been with us and … white people are quite adept at the whole woe-is-me bit.” But I don’t like writing off the post-collegiate crash that I and everyone I know experienced in one way or another as woe-is-me. I think there’s more to it than that.
So does the movie’s hero, Lelaina, and here we encounter my first big frustration with the film: it could have been way more than a romance, and for awhile it seems to have aspirations to explicate the anxieties and difficulties faced by twentysomethings coming out of college in ’94. But by the third act it has completely abandoned this and is content to see which corner of the love triangle Lelaina will choose, the stable businessman who is nice to her (Stiller) or the disrespectful college drop-out artist she’s been pining for since freshman year (Hawke). Is it clear where my sympathies lie? Am I too obvious? Well, we are pulling into Frustration Station #2, and this is a frustration that goes way beyond Reality Bites and into the realm of romantic comedies as a whole.
It is often said that the problem with romantic comedies is that they stop right where the story gets interesting. Get-together stories are good, but relationships take time to grow into something meaty, to develop stories worth telling. Movies are starting to fill this gap, with success levels ranging from “meh” to “awesome” (or Five Year Engagement to Crazy, Stupid, Love., for those of you keeping score at home), but the majority of romantic comedies still follow the traditional pattern: meet cute, courtship, conflict, break-up, reconciliation. At which point we see the lovers hugging, usually in a park or at a party of some kind, credits roll, and, it is assumed, they live happily ever after.
Which is my problem. They don’t. No one lives happily ever after. Tons of people have fulfilling, satisfying relationships that last a lifetime, but no one gets there without a lot of conflict along the way. Now, there are plenty of films in which this happily-ever-illusion isn’t problematic or upsetting because we’re given enough information to believe the relationship will be successful. Reality Bites is not one of them, and that’s because Troy Dyer, Hawke’s philosophy-reading guitar-playing artist musician in need of washing his hair, is an asshole. Lelaina calls him her best friend, but for the vast majority of his screen time Troy is sponging off her, berating her, insulting her, and patronizing her, usually publicly. The few pleasant scenes they have together are actually startling. So at the movie’s end, when Troy comes back for her, hat in hand, and they have romantic makeouts on the front path, there’s no good feeling, no pleasant expectation of future happiness on the part of the viewer. And how could there be, when the primary way we’ve seen Troy treat Lelaina is “like shit”?
It’s part of a larger trope, the one where the right person for our hero is the one who makes them work for it. And it’s part of another larger trope, where women turn shitty assholes into great partners through the power of love. And it’s all really upsetting, because here’s the thing – men who are comfortable patronizing, insulting, and belittling women in public? They don’t magically turn into good guys with pure intentions and hearts of gold. They can play that role, but ultimately, that guy who was willing to insult and berate a woman is willing to do so again. It’s called the cycle of abuse.
That’s my problem with Reality Bites. Not only are Lelaina and Troy not going to live happily ever after, they’re probably going to live wildly-dysfunctionally-ever-after. But that’s not the part we see. We see Troy coming to Lelaina in a suit, of all things, saying:
I have this… this planet of regret… sitting on my shoulders. And you have no idea how much I wish that I could go back to that morning after we made love and do everything different. But I know that I can’t, so… I thought that I would come here and tell you something. And what I wanted to tell you… was that I love you. And, uh… just wanted to make sure that that was clear. So that there wasn’t any confusion.
We see him, in the scene where they first get together, saying:
Troy: Honey, all you have to be by the age of twenty-three is yourself.
Lelaina: I don’t know who that is anymore.
Troy: Well, I do. And we all love her. I love her. She breaks my heart again and again, but I love her … I’ve wanted you like this for all these years.
Many moons ago when this movie was released, Roger Ebert reviewed it. I highly recommend you check out his review – I liked the movie more than he did, but I largely agree with him. He also brought to the forefront one thing I neglected to realize through my critique: “What unwritten law prevented the makers of “Reality Bites” from observing that their heroine can’t shoot video worth a damn, that their hero is a jerk, and that their villain is the most interesting person in the movie?” Reality Bites expects us to like Troy. What we see on screen is that the bullshit Troy puts Lelaina through has an incredible payoff. And that’s what scares me – that young women see movies like this and decide that they can’t get the pay-off without the bullshit, that the pay-off is worth the bullshit. Clearly its writer thought so.