The verite of this saga of Generation X is that it is no more fierce than a peck. “Reality Bites” begins as a promising and eccentric tale of contemporary youth but evolves into a banal love story as predictable as any lush Hollywood affair.
A wall-to-wall pop-song score and some fancy camera angles do little to disguise the old-fashioned nature of the drama. While one can commend tyro director Ben Stiller for some adroit work with actors, he’s yet to display much grasp of narrative. The target audience should quickly smell a rat and signal a fast theatrical fade for the effort.
The story centers on four recent Texas college grads, including valedictorian Lelaina Pierce (Winona Ryder). Her parting comment to the class and parents is that the answer is, “There’s no answer.”
Such aimlessness infects these lives. Her roomie Vickie (Janeane Garofalo) manages a heavy-denim clothing store, while Troy (Ethan Hawke) and Sammy (Steve Zahn) appear to have no profession. Lelaina’s work, as a television intern on a chatty morning show with a two-faced host (John Mahoney), seems very adult in comparison.
However, grappling with finding direction and meaning winds up a secondary concern in Helen Childress’ script. She employs the quite labored device of having the heroine meet a romantic interest in a fender bender. Michael (Stiller) is a high-strung exec on an MTV-style cable web.
Shrill and obvious, “Reality Bites” quickly turns blunt and dull. The screenplay telegraphs virtually every character move, leaving the audience impatient for the story to move on.
Despite these shortcomings, Ryder maintains her dignity in a thankless role. She is genuine when all around her is patently synthetic.
She also appears to have been shortchanged in the suitor department; Hawke certainly is convincing as an unlikely bully and Stiller is equally repellent as a classic neurotic workaholic. Thankfully, some levity is brought to the fore by Joe Don Baker and Swoosie Kurtz as Ryder’s estranged parents and from Mahoney as a thoroughgoing rotter who gets his comeuppance.
Tech credits are good, if a bit on the showy side. But that’s in keeping with the air of phoniness and lack of reality inherent in the piece. If nothing else, it serves as a logical extension of America’s idealized and unreal view of youth that extends from Andy Hardy through a string of TV sitcoms. The precursors, however, were infinitely more palatable.