Thursday 10 June 2010

Obscurity Files #10 - Reality Bites

SLACKER Obscurity Files aims to put the spotlight onto a series of films that time and audiences have otherwise forgotten. Seeing as Ben Stiller and Ethan Hawke both have movies out this weekend, and the reality TV institution of Big Brother starts this week, it couldn't be a more perfect time to look at Reality Bites.
More after the jump...

Living in Texas in the mid 90's, the recently graduated Lelaina (Winona Ryder) and her friends move from job to job as they try and find out what they're meant to do with their lives. After accidentally crashing into Lelaina's car, Michael (Ben Stiller) a successful TV producer, might be able to give Lelaina a way to distribute the documentary she has made about her friends and possibly offer a more stable romantic relationship than her close friend Troy (Ethan Hawke).

I first saw this movie on video around 1996, and I have to say that it had a profound effect on me. These guys seemed to my innocent teenage eyes to be living the coolest lives ever. I mean, look at Ethan Hawke's Troy; he's cool as fuck and couldn't care less about it. He doesn't want the big city job, he's happy to sleep on his friend's sofa and play guitar in his band, 'Hey That's My Bike'. In hindsight, there's probably better role models out there. Working at a bunch of minimum wage jobs loses some of its Bukowski-esque charm once you've done it for a while.

Looking at the film now, it's very much a statement of 1994 culture. They ape previous generations cultures (most notably Vickie's 50's Bettie Page stylings) and listen to retro music. They're all a product of the baby boomer generation and have very strained relationships with their parents. When times are hard, Lelaina has no quibbles with abusing the gas station payment card her father has given her for emergencies.

They have all been provided with a good education by their parents, they just can't find a good outlet to use it apart from ironic and sarcastic conversation.

Winona Ryder was still in her career upswing here, having recently appeared in Dracula and the Age of Innocence. But this was her opportunity to appear in a film that would appeal to her Generation X contemporaries, rather than the offbeat audiences of Heathers and Edward Scissorhands. The screenwriter Helen Childress was only in her mid-20's when this script was produced, and had written the lead role with Winona Ryder in mind.

Ben Stiller was at a transitional stage of his career. His recent Judd Apatow produced Ben Stiller Show had just been cancelled after one season and he chose to take a gamble on this film as his feature directorial debut, putting himself into this slacker love triangle. His character Michael wants to be one of the cool crowd, but his career aspirations take the lead over his slacker yearnings. He'd like to quit his job to go and sit in a coffee shop all day, but there's business to be done and money to be made. Maybe Michael has it right anyway; his successful yuppie is a lot happier than Ethan Hawke's layabout Troy.

Some have described this movie as a stoner film, and while it may feature some narcotic use, it's really more of a romance. There's a clear central love triangle here, and it's fairly believable that both of these guys would fall for Lelaina.

Its view of reality tv seems a bit quaint now. Lelaina films her friends and they're fairly nonchalant about it all, whereas nowadays she'd be surrounded by pink haired lunatics with over-confidence issues all desperate for their 15 minutes of fame. The extent of reality tv in 1994 didn't reach much further than The Real World, the MTV show that this film takes a few potshots at. Michael's In Your Face TV is basically a thinly veiled stand-in for MTV.

This was a bit of a minor hit in 1994, grossing $33 million worldwide, despite being sold as a much broader comedy by Universal. Here's the trailer.

As for what they all did after this film, Ben Stiller went on to direct the underrated Jim Carrey flop The Cable Guy before becoming a Hollywood comedy megastar himself; Ethan Hawke further cemented his indie credentials with Richard Linklater films like Before Sunrise, eventually finding a niche in a string of gritty cop thrillers and despite predictions, Winona Ryder never managed to find that signature role she needed before an unfortunate and notorious brush with the law made her career hit the skids.

Not without a few faults, I must say I still love this film 16 years later. Yeah, it's dated in places but it's a sweet romantic comedy with an offbeat sense of humour. I definitely recommend it.

Save from obscurity. YES

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