Universal // 1994 // 99 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Patrick Naugle // August 30th, 2004
Life is always funnier when it happens to somebody else.
What happens when college life ends and the real world begins? Four Generation X graduates are about to find out that life is tough, work sucks, and in the end, Reality Bites. Lelaina (Winona Ryder, Edward Scissorhands) is valedictorian of her class but doesn't seem to have much direction in her life, except filming her friends dealing with their problems on her camcorder. Said friends include: Vickie (Janeane Garofolo, Mystery Men), who works as a manager at the Gap and worries about her next HIV test; Sammy (Steve Zahn, Out of Sight), who is struggling with his sexuality; and Troy (Ethan Hawke, Training Day), one of those really cool guys who can never hold down a job, has perpetually dirty hair, and smokes a lot of cigarettes. Both Tory and Lelaina subconsciously pine for each other, and their feelings are suddenly unearthed when a preppie new suitor, Michael (Ben Stiller, Meet the Parents), enters the picture, offering her what appears to be a great job opportunity and his unrequited love, forcing Lelaina to decide between the two men.
Ben Stiller is an actor and director that I've never warmed to. I realize that there seems to be a rabid fan base that really likes the guy -- There's Something About Mary, Meet the Parents, and this past summer's Dodgeball: A True Underdog Story were all massive hits that have solidified him as one of this generation's "comedic geniuses." Uh-huh. Oh, how I long for the days of Chevy Chase and Martin Short! Stiller has also directed a few films, none of which sat well with me -- the darkly depressing The Cable Guy, the so-stupid-that-it's-actually-just-stupid Zoolander, and the 1994 coming of age film Reality Bites.
Reality Bites, Stiller's feature film directorial debut, tells us to care about its characters. But how can we do that when they're all whiney, self-centered nebbishes who can't hold down a job and talk to each other in poetic riddles? (Hawke's character spouts such wisdom like "There's no point to any of this. It's all just a random lottery of meaningless tragedy and a series of near escapes. So I take pleasure in the details..." Blah, blah, blah.) None of the characters endears themselves to the viewer, and the one guy (Stiller) who we're supposed to hate comes off as the most likable guy in the film. That certainly says something about how ill defined they've all been written.
The actors do what they can with the script, but it all feels like a reject from the John Hughes '80s comedy workshop, and a really bad one at that. The dialogue attempts to be witty ("He's so cheesy I can't watch him without crackers") and the story is uninvolving; Lelaina pines for two separate men, each vastly different than the other. You get no bonus points for being able to guess how this whole thing ends. Stiller's Michael comes off as a pretty nice guy, while Troy is egocentric, dirty, and downright narcissistic. Janeane Garofolo and Steve Zahn's characters seem perfunctory in comparison -- they spend most of the film complaining about their petty little lives...oh wait, that's what the main characters do as well.
When I received Reality Bites for review, my girlfriend commented that it is one of her favorite movies. I can see why someone would like it -- one's enjoyment of a movie often has just as much to do with time and place in life as the content of the actual film. Heck, I have a soft spot in my heart for Just One Of The Guys, and when push comes to shove, that's a mediocre '80s movie at best. I guess what you think of Reality Bites will depend on those factors. As for me, you know where I stand and in what direction my thumb is pointing (I'll give you a hint: they lost the Civil War).
Reality Bites is presented in 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen. Universal has done a fine job with this ten-year-old print -- the colors and black levels are all solidly rendered without any bleeding in the images. Black levels are well contrasted and solid throughout. The only minor flaw I noticed in this picture was a bit of grain and dirt in the print during a few scenes. Otherwise, fans of Stiller's brand of humor will be happy with his this transfer looks.
The soundtrack is presented in Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround in English and French. This sound mix is good, if not great. There are a few directional effects in this mix, though the bulk of the soundtrack is front heavy (this is a light comedy, after all). The biggest boost comes in the form of the pop songs from the era (and if you can ever get that damned Lisa Loeb song out of your head, please let me know how you did it). All aspects of the mix are free of any hiss and distortion. Also included on this disc are English, French, and Spanish subtitles, as well as a Dolby 2.0 Surround mix in Spanish.
Universal has gone for the double dip and come out with an only so-so 10th anniversary edition of the film. Included on this disc is a mildly amusing commentary track with director Ben Stiller and writer Helen Childress (her one and only screenplay), various deleted scenes with an on-camera introduction by Stiller, a retrospective featurette that makes the film seem much more relevant than it actually is or was (this includes interviews with Stiller, Ryder, Hawke, Garofolo, Childress, et cetera), an interview with singer/songwriter Lisa Loeb, a music video for Loeb's perpetual "Stay," and an original theatrical trailer for the film.
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Scales of Justice
* 1.85:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (French)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround (Spanish)
Running Time: 99 Minutes
Release Year: 1994
MPAA Rating: Rated R
* Commentary Track by Ben Stiller and Helen Childress
* Retrospective Featurette
* Lisa Loeb Interview
* Deleted Scenes with Intro by Ben Stiller
* "Stay" Music Video by Lisa Loeb
* Original Theatrical Trailer