WARNING: This is a post from my high school blog. I cannot vouch for its quality but I wanted to give people an idea of how my writing has developed over the years. Yes, I’m padding my site.
Dir. Ben Stiller
Wr. Helen Childress
Prod. Danny DeVito, Michael Shamberg
Str. Winona Ryder, Ethan Hawke, Ben Stiller
The poster for this movie, as you can see above, markets itself with three key words- “Comedy,” “love,” and “the 90’s.” Only one of those terms sufficiently describes this movie.
It’s the 90’s.
What’s intrinsically funny about that is the fact that one of the few things this movie does right is critique the popular culture of the 90’s themselves, while also being a a clear part of it. There’s Ethan Hawke with his bad boy locks and mustache. We have a stammering, awkward Ben Stiller on screen, and sitting in the director’s chair for the first time. The movie exudes the time period, which is totally fine, but we need to focus now on those other two words: “comedy,” and “love.”
I’m all for toned down comedy in place of other flavors and tones, but let’s be honest – this movie just isn’t particularly comedic. Don’t get me wrong, there are a lot of healthy chuckle moments, but they don’t leave a lasting impression. The one truly funny moment I can remember is when we first meet Ben Stiller, and he has a sculpted bust thing of Dr. Zeus from Planet of the Apes, which proceeds to get smashed by Winona Ryder. Even then, physical comedy is great but when you have a comedic talent like Stiller both acting and directing, you expect more.
So the movie sacrifices laughs for what it would like to think is a serious story. And it is a serious story, as Ryder’s character goes around taping her and her friends lives to make a documentary about people their age. This is a compelling concept, and it is used in cool ways by Stiller, as we see sections of that documentary through grainy video footage spliced into the rest of the movie. It’s fun to see the characters trying to explain themselves. The problem is, there doesn’t seem to be much of a conflict other than “Which boy do I choose?” It’s framed around a troublesome time in the characters’ lives as they try to find meaning and purpose, but unfortunately those issues seem to fall to the wayside in favor of a Stiller vs. Hawke cockfight.
It’s for this fault that my favorite moment in the movie is when the “finding your purpose” story and the “lovey love” story actually intertwine in an interesting way. Stiller’s character is a ladder-climber in the entertainment industry, while Hawke is a deadbeat guitarist-singer with too much time on his hands. The two both want to be with Ryder’s character. The moment occurs when Ryder runs away from the two of them, and they both have a fight/discussion about literally her fate and the nature of each of their relationships to her. It’s a poignant scene that makes neither of them the bad guy, and makes Hawke’s character grow in particular.
She ends up with Ethan Hawke. It’s not too surprising for the most of the movie, except in the midst of the aforementioned scene, when you question who is the best for Ryder’s character. Which brings me to my last bit of analysis: Winona Ryder.
I’ve been talking a lot about the men in this movie without really discusing the protagonist, Lelaina. Ryder goes back and forth in making Lelaina both a likeable, sympathetic person with an outright insane person. Some of the things she does, like the ways she quits her job and pays her telephone bill, seem to be extreme and not realistic in an otherwise pretty straight movie. I like this dimension added to a character, but it also doesn’t have to be so extreme. The best moments with Ryder are when we see her interact with her friends and family. The opening dinner scene with her parents and step parents shines in particular, as we see her struggle to be a relevant member of society while also crumbling under the weight of her parents’ baggage.
I also want to revisit Ethan Hawke. In Reality Bites he bears the face of a Backstreet Boy, ready to receive my fist. He looks so obnoxious. And I hate the way he kisses. It’s like watching a Burger King commercial.
I can only recommend Reality Bites if you want to see some good actors bounce off each other well, or if you want to see Ben Stiller in his first directing role. But I would recommend even more his next movie, The Cable Guy, with Jim Carrey and Matthew Broderick. It’s a tighter movie, and more satirical, which is Stiller’s strongsuit.
Thank you for reading this wishy-washy analysis of Reality Bites.