XX 1/2 "Reality Bites," with Winona Ryder, Ethan Hawke, Ben Stiller, Janeane Garofalo, Steve Zahn. Directed by Ben Stiller. Everett Mall, Grand Cinemas Alderwood, Lewis & Clark, Metro, Newmark, Oak Tree, Seatac Mall, Totem Lake. "PG-13" - Parental guidance strongly suggested because of mild profanity, mature humor. -----------------------------------------------------------------
While there are some engaging characters, quotable dialogue and a few keenly observant details in "Reality Bites," this isn't the definitive twentysomething movie that it would like to be. It's more like an agreeable sampling of Life Lite, with nibbles of reality tossed in as a dietary supplement.
There might have been more moments of truth if first-time director Ben Stiller and 24-year-old first-time writer Helen Childress weren't so enamored of pop culture. Their movie would shrivel to nearly nothing if you removed the great soundtrack songs, retro-cool wardrobe, cameos from hip-band rockers (like Evan Dando of the Lemonheads) and constant references to the 1970s. Watching "Reality Bites" is like leafing through an issue of Rolling Stone and skipping all the "heavy" stuff.
That's arguably the point. Being twentysomething means having hundreds of common reference points in a consumer culture virtually defined by MTV. No surprise, then, that "Reality Bites" is essentially a big-screen variation on "The Real World," the popular MTV series that presents young adults in a "real" documentary context. Maybe it doesn't resemble your life, but it reflects it through the pervasive lens of a video camera, blurring the line between reality and a zillion hours of channel surfing.
What gradually emerges is the inescapable truth that the '90s are tough on young adults, and that college is no guarantee of survival. That's the hard part. The easy part is that it's all worthwhile when you've got someone to share the hard part with.
And so we find Lelaina (Winona Ryder), a recently graduated valedictorian and aspiring filmmaker in Houston, who uses her life and that of her friends to create a video documentary of Generation X. Her subjects are Troy (Ethan Hawke), a cynical expert at "time suckage" whose high IQ is applied to his struggling postgrunge band; best girlfriend Vickie (Janeane Garofalo), a survivor of lousy boyfriends who just got promoted to manager at The Gap; and Sammy (Steve Zahn) a semirepressed gay guy who's chosen celibacy as the path of least romantic resistance.
Into this melange of order-out pizza, Big Gulps and career angst comes Mike (Ben Stiller), a slick, Armani-suited producer from an MTV-like network who falls for Lelaina and her video dreams. Brooding Troy gets jealous and "Reality Bites" turns into a Nora Ephron movie, in which there are no villains and true love rules.
All of which makes this a lightly enjoyable diversion - destined for double-billing with "Singles" - in which Stiller and Childress have nicely captured a casual atmosphere that's dramatically thin but never superficial. Childress has an ear for dialogue that rings true even when it's self-consciously movie-ish, and Ryder and Hawke bring crucial authenticity to their roles with effortless appeal. You'll find yourself wanting more of these characters than the movie gives you.