Reality Bites (1994)

There are times when I am convinced that Ethan Hawke has sold his soul to the devil.

A mediocre actor with an unimpressive physical appearance and a limited emotional range, he has had a long, and successful career in Hollywood. He’s played the romantic lead to some of the most beautiful, and talented actresses of his generation. He’s made three films with Julie Delpy. He married, then cheated on Uma Thurman. His luck shows no signs of letting up. His last film, Boyhood, was even nominated for a best picture.

Let’s take Reality Bites, his eleventh film. Directed by the young Ben Stiller, Reality Bites was based on a screenplay written by Helen Childress, who promptly dropped off the face of the earth shortly after its release. Did Ethan Hawke help The Prince of Darkness perform a human sacrifice? Did they offer up the blood of Ms. Childress to the forces of evil before dissolving her body in a vat of hydrochloric acid? It sounds far-fetched, but consider this. Helen Childress doesn’t even have a Wikipedia page.

Then again, perhaps she just realized she didn’t have any talent.

Reality Bites is not necessarily a bad film. The photography, pacing, and direction are all competent. Except for Ethan Hawke, the actors, who include a Janeane Garofalo, Say Anything’s John Mahoney, and a ridiculously beautiful young Winona Ryder are all terrific. Even the young Ben Stiller manages to bring some comic appeal to an incoherent and ludicrously written character. But if Reality Bites isn’t a bad film, it’s a badly written film, a confused, dishonest mess that raises important sociological issues only to drop them in mid-script without a proper resolution. It pretends to speak for the downwardly mobile generation that would shortly face a job market gutted by NAFTA and the global sweatshop in China. In “reality” it just uses them as a marketing hook.

Say Anything ended with high-school valedictorian Diane Court living happily ever after with the young slacker Lloyd Dobler. Reality Bites opens with Lelaina Pierce, the valedictorian at an unnamed university in Texas making a graduation speech very similar to the one Diane Court gave in Say Anything. She even hesitates before improvising one of her lines, showing a vulnerability that wins over her audience, both on screen and off. The advantage here goes to Reality Bites. Unlike the beautiful, but vapid Ione Skye, Winona Ryder is an appealing actress with a genuine intelligence, but Helen Childress lets her down.

Diane Court is a genuinely sweet young woman. Lelaina Pierce is an entitled moron. Her upper-middle-class parents give her a BMW and a years worth of fee gas. She complains about the BMW. It’s a car for yuppies. But she’s not above using her father’s credit card to scam 900 dollars to pay for a phone bill she ran up calling a psychic on a 900 number. Remember those? She gets a paid internship for a TV talk show host, John Mahoney, who also played Diane Court’s father on Say Anything, but can’t even accomplish simple tasks like remembering to put a coffee cup on the set. She wants to work in television, but thinks herself above the basic work of putting on a TV show. After she gets herself fired, her roommate offers to get her a job at the GAP, which she indignantly rejects as beneath her.

If Lelaina is above learning the basic mechanics of putting on a TV show, she’s not much better at film making. What did she major in at her university anyway? She wants to make an unedited, improvised documentary about her college friends, but she never talks about John Cassevetes or Mike Leigh. She has no interest in the technical side of making movies or videos.  Dear White People, a far better film, has a credible portrait of a young filmmaker. Samantha White loves movies. She’s interested in politics. She has a brain.

Lelaina Pierce, on the other hand, owns a video camera. She points it at her friends. She films them talking. That’s about it. Even so, she basically wins the lottery. Michael Grates, the young Ben Stiller, a producer at a show called “In Your Face TV,” falls in love with her. He has his professional editors clean up her video and give it a soundtrack, then offers to pay for it. She not only turns him down. She insults him. In fact, she does more than insult him. She flat out accuses him of betraying her and her whole generation. In the “real world,” Michael Grates would have laughed in her face.

Nevertheless, the story of Lelaina Pierce’s documentary is fascinating, almost in spite of itself. In Your Face TV is clearly meant to be MTV. In 1992, MTV debuted the very first “reality show,” called, appropriately enough, “The Real World.” Reality Bites, which was released in 1994, was filmed in 1993. Helen Childress, in spite of her incompetence as a screenwriter, has addressed an important moment in popular culture. Reality Bites is film about a young woman making a reality show. She pitches the idea to MTV. They accept it. But then, inexplicably, she turns them down at the exact moment that MTV was starting to remake itself from Music TV to Reality Show TV. The future wasn’t Kurt Cobain. It was Keeping Up with the Kardashians. Insufferable little twit though she was, Lelaina Pierce rebelled at the right time against a toxic cultural phenomenon just starting to ooze its way out of the primeval American slime.

If Michael Grates represents MTV’s reality show future, then Troy Dyer, the above mentioned Ethan Hawke, represents MTV’s past. He’s also an abusive jerk.  If Lelaina Pierce is an insufferable little twit, compared to Troy she’s almost a saint. Troy is a free loader who thinks he’s above working 9-5. We’re told that he’s a genius, but he’s not. He’s a moron. He thinks he’s a real musician but he’s even worse with a guitar than Lelaina is with a video camera. He can barely play three chords and he can’t hold a tune. The only songs we ever hear him play are a hard rock tune that, barely, qualifies him as the lead singer in a fifth rate Nickelback cover band, and an interpretation of a Violent Femmes song he plays only to insult Lelaina as punishment for taking him out of the friend zone and fucking him. Yes. You head that right. He insults her because she sleeps with him. Lloyd Dobler may have been an underachiever with no career plans, but it was at least believable that Diane Court could have fallen for him. He’s a likable guy who’s sincerely in love with her. But Troy? Couldn’t even an insufferably entitled and obnoxious young Winona Ryder do better than him?

The only explanation, in other words, is that Ethan Hawke sold his soul to the devil.

Or maybe there’s a better explanation. Reality Bites is setting up Lelaina and Troy as a pair of obnoxious young romantic rebels, not to attack the transition of MTV from music videos to reality shows, but to sell MTV’s transition from music videos to reality shows. The key is the inexplicably bad, incoherently written character of Michael Grates. Troy Dyer, it must be admitted, is an obnoxious jerk, but he’s still a mixed up 22-year-old kid whose father is dying of cancer. One suspects that the real Lelaina Pierce is none other than Helen Childress. Ben Stiller, the son of Jerry Stiller and Anne Meara, was to the manner born, part of the show business aristocracy. He’s no fool. Childress is an incompetent. But Ben Stiller surely knew what he was doing when he green lighted a script that set up an obnoxious young working class failure like Troy Dyer as a “genius” and portrayed an MTV producer, not as a slick, oily, pompous, out of touch or full of himself, but as a flat out moron barely capable of articulate speech.

Michael Grates simply beggars credibility. Whatever you think about reality shows (and surely I’m no fan) an MTV producer would at least have a certain kind of superficial cleverness. He wouldn’t struggle to remember who wrote Hamlet. What’s more, an MTV producer, infatuated with a would be videographer or not, wouldn’t be a passive doormat. Again and again, Troy Dyer humiliates Michael Grates and treats him like a fool. In real life, a Michael Grates might be out of his element in a crowd of young malcontents, but he’d be as big an asshole as they were. That actually might be a funny script, but it’s not the one Stiller chose to film. On the contrary, Stiller plays Michael Grates as if he were almost a saint.

In other words, Ben Stiller stacks the deck. The reality show producer is the rejected “nice guy.” The aspiring grunge musician is the asshole who gets the girls. Rock n Roll, in 1994, was already dead. In a few years it would be replaced by hip hop, boy bands, and the teenage Britney Spears. Reality shows would eventually become the unstoppable juggernaut they are today. By framing the conflict between an angry young working-class musician and a privileged TV producer over a girl as the victory of an angry young asshole over a saintly buffoon, Ben Stiller manipulates us into rooting for the TV producer. The joke was on us, a joke only the devil himself could have been evil enough to imagine.

We had been manipulated into rooting for Keeping Up With The Kardashians over Nickelback.

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