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Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Haters Gonna Hate: Reality Bites edition

I suppose I knew that nominating a movie like Reality Bites would get me called on the carpet, so it seems inevitable that I would be writing a defense of my hatred. Full disclosure: my hatred was born in an association with one of the absolute worst human beings I’ve ever had the displeasure of knowing, who held as his personal hero one Troy Dyer, the hobo at the heart of this little cinematic gem. Not that I ever loved the movie, but once I became disgusted with Troy the veil was lifted, and I was able to see the movie for what it really was. And what is it? So glad you asked. Come window-shopping down the avenue of horrors with me, won’t you?

As the movie opens, we see Lelaina (a twee little Winona Ryder) intoning a speech at her college graduation. Because as anyone who never went to college knows, commencement addresses are typically given by random students, not celebrities or famous alumni. “But!” you cry, your voice trembling with the sting of the indignity, “She is obviously the valedictorian!” To which I respond: #1) no she’s not—she’s not very bright (as we will soon see); and #2) valedictorians give commencement addresses at high school graduations. Also—“disembowel their revolution for a pair of running shoes”? WAY TO STICK IT TO THE MAN AND HIS JOGGING ROUTINE. The speech is played for comedic effect—she loses her notes and still manages to make a splash. Has the movie lost me already? Yes. But I forge ahead.
The movie plays up the dichotomy between the friends’ graduation celebration and the parents’. Troy plays guitar with his teeth and throws a tassel off of a building (cool!). The parents are eating some bourgeois dinner in some pedestrian restaurant (lame!). Troy, Lelaina, and their friends Vickie and Sammy sing “Schoolhouse Rocks”, so we know they’re cool without having to think about it too hard. The parents have Southern accents, so that we’ll know they’re idiots without requiring further evidence (although the movie thoughtfully shows one of the women cutting one of the men’s food for him, in what is probably the only “show-don’t-tell” moment of the movie, so). Vickie professes that the only thing she learned in college is her social security number—time well-spent! Troy is even cooler—he didn’t even finish! We have a four-way tie in the awesomeness contest!
Okay, I’ve realized that if I attempt to catalogue every piece of refuse that comes spewing out of these characters’ garbage holes, we will be here until 2012. So I will attempt to summarize, although bear in mind that I’m leaving out far more than I’m including. But I have notes. Oh, do I ever have notes.
Let me sum up: the truth is that I like Vickie and Sammy. I like the actors, I like their subplots…it’s like Janeane Garofalo and Steve Zahn wander in and out of terrible plotlines like refugees from a better movie. Every time I watch this movie it’s like hoping that maybe this time Juliet will wake up before Romeo drinks the poison; I get a little surge of warm hope that maybe this time the movie will revolve around Vickie and Sammy, only to have my dreams dashed when Troy rubs brownie on Lelaina’s face (because love, obviously).
We meet another character that I like, Michael, when Lelaina tosses her cigarette butt into his car, causing an accident (because that is how committed she is to preventing any sort of work from happening). I like Michael because he is honestly a decent guy. He tries to help Lelaina’s career. He has no foreknowledge of what his network is going to do to her “documentary” (note: explain to Lelaina the difference between stoned home movies and deliberate artistic statements). When she is upset by what happened to her documentary he tries to make amends (again, despite having done exactly nothing wrong).
And now, for what I don’t like:
Show, Don’t Tell: The movie tells us that Lelaina is smart, but she can’t add and she can’t define irony. The movie tells us that Troy is a musician and places a guitar in his hand, and he sings a couple of crappy songs near the end. We know that Lelaina and Troy are best friends because she says so, and in direct defiance of the fact that they get on each others’ nerves for 90% of the movie and on each others’ nuts for the other 10%. The movie doesn’t want to trouble us with the difficult work of coming to conclusions about these people—why waste precious time characterizing when there are so many eighties songs to sing in the gas station?
Troy: When Yeats wrote the words “No Second Troy”, what he meant was “Please Don’t Make a Movie about This Oily Asshole”. He never says anything that is not dripping, like grease from his hair, with sarcasm. The question is not “why does Lelaina like him?” but “why does anyone?”. He gets fired from one of his jobs for stealing a Snickers bar. What is the justification there? “Who needs gainful adult employment when the ESTABLISHMENT owes me a Snickers?” His entire life philosophy can be summed up as, “If I ever get my shit together, I’ll die.” Blaming one’s problems on the unfairness of the world is so hot right now.
Lelaina: She can’t add, the few smarts she does have seem devoted entirely to ripping off her well-meaning father by extorting money from him, and she disses Vickie’s job by being all above working at the GAP. I take it back. I get the attraction to Troy.
I would love to imagine that this movie is meant as a cautionary tale about rudderless adolescents trapped in adult bodies. If you refuse to wash your hair, then no one will finance your documentary! But the final scene shows Lelaina and Troy joyously embracing as her father’s voice inquires via answering machine about her credit card fraud. Ha ha! High five! He was dumb enough to trust you! Cut! Print! KILL ME. The moral is that these two win, and that makes me feel that, in a very real way, all of us lose.
Final note: pothead momma and cokehead dad? NOPE.
Looking forward to Frank Lloyd Wrong's retort. Maybe it turns out I've been Baby Friday Wrong all these years. (Hint: nope.)


  1. I listened to a great podcast with Patton Oswalt where people root for/like the wrong characters in films. And this came up immediately. He compared it to Wall Street, where Gordon Gekko is supposed to be despised, but everyone is like "I wanna be that guy". Same goes for Troy. Michael isn't perfect, but at least he's got some sort of semblance and direction in his life, instead of idealist bullshit. He tried to give her film a narrative, and she freaks out for invading her privacy/messing with her art. It's like get over yourself, your film was terrible. He was trying to help. Ugh city. BTW, i've been to that Gap from the film.

  2. I have a really rough time with judging movies like this in today's context when clearly they are very zeitgeisty in nature and intended to appeal to the 17 years old me in 1994 not the 33 years old me in 2011. Angst-ridden grunge, lazily idealized love stories, and glorifying wildly immature life choices certainly appealed to back then but they do not today. The Kel of 1994 was thrilled with everything about this film. The Kel of today wishes Winona had ended up with Ben Stiller's character instead. And so, I am torn against myself on this matter and refuse to choose a side in the epic battle of me vs. me. I do, however, throw my support to the discussion in general and I look forward to its continuance.

  3. Wellll, Lelaina does say to her mom, "I was valedictorian of my class" or something to that effect. (And her mom says she doesn't have to tell the HR person that when she applies for a job.)

    But that point aside, I'm with thekelburrows. When I first saw this movie (just 6 years ago), I was 20 and about to graduate from college with no clue of what I was supposed to do with my life. I feel like I said this over at VG once, but to see this movie and realize that a lot of people didn't know what they were doing with their life--that was a big deal for me. I went to a preppy private university where I didn't completely fit in (I had like three friends, seriously) and everyone else was making plans and Teaching for America and getting jobs, and I was fucking temping. So, I don't know, it made me feel better. Even now, every time I watch it (which is every couple months) I feel a little better, and I've somewhat got my life together now.

    Anyway, not that anyone needs to learn life lessons from Reality Bites, but it meant a lot to me. And I love the music. And Troy Dyer is totally my type, for better or worse.

  4. I guess the movie that spoke to me in that "it's okay to feel like you don't know where you're going" was The Graduate. I was 15 when Reality Bites came out, and I didn't like it then either, but I definitely get the idea that we have connections with certain movies because of when we see them. I too went to a preppy private university with a bunch of rich kids--I was the lone person that I knew working my way through full time. So I guess it bugs me that the characters really take college education and middle-class opportunities for granted; in fact, some of them even piss on college and parents trying to be helpful. I would have LOVED to have had helpful parents, and I'm super, unbelievably proud of having finished college, so it's probably where I'm coming from that informs my thoughts on that.

  5. What's your glitch, Baby Friday?!

    Maybe it's wishful remembering, but it seems like 17 yr old me actually had a similar reaction to the movie upon first seeing it as you're describing here. My friends and I loved it, of course, even though it is garbage. I hated Troy and yet I was happy in the end when he came back. Michael was too good for Lelaina anyway. I don't think I could have loved it were it not for Vickie and Sammy. They were the characters I could relate to the most (ok, at the time I could also relate to being attracted to smug assholes, but I'm over that). Anyway, I'm just rambling. Mostly I wanted to say that I love this review!

  6. I would like to add that "in direct defiance of the fact that they get on each others' nerves for 90% of the movie and on each others' nuts for the other 10%" is really really funny. That is all.

  7. I completely agree that both Lelaina and Troy are insufferable. They are both big assholes that deserve each other. HOWEVER, I love this movie. It is filled with great quotes and I can totally relate with the big question of "What am I going to do with my life?" and the post-grad hell hole.

    Baby Friday, your review was great and you had very valid points, but you haven't changed my mind. My emotions have the best of me!


    I will admit that I really liked this movie when I was 17. Then I grew up and realized that it really is from the point of view of a 17 year old. It is an immature look at an idealized adulthood completely separated from the moral ambiguities and million tiny disappointments inherent in life. I hate this movie for the same reasons I hate the celebration of the manchild in films today. There comes a point where, even if you do not know what you want to be as an adult, you ARE an adult nonetheless, and that means sucking it up and dealing with reality. Yes, it Bites. Everyone knows that, but holding your breath and throwing a tantrum will not change that fact.

    (apologies if this comes across as bitter. At the moment I have a chip on my shoulder that is roughly the size of alaska).

  9. My rambling thoughts:

    The movie is about people just graduating from college -- so... 22 year olds? Do you remember being 22? Do you remember how you felt just out of college? Both confident AND insecure about which path to choose. Hopeful but lacking a clear direction in life. Reconciling your newfound cultivated esteem for beer, pot, and college-rock with the aspirations of working adults in "the real world." It was the 90s, things were pretty good, and yuppies were the devil incarnate. Michael is a yuppie. While the cognizant adult me recognizes that his wants are now, essentially, my wants, there is also a part of me on my other shoulder warning, "NO! BAD! ABORT MISSION!" Because if you thought corporations were the worst in the 80s and 90s, you were wrong. In fact, WE were wrong.

    The triangle love story is just the bit of the movie to keep the kids interested. For the romantics in all of us. Was Michael terrible for what his MTV-like company did with Lelaina's tapes? Nope. But did he completely miss the point when he said he'd have them remove the part about the pizza? Yep. Was Lelaina mistaken to have let some giant company compromise her artistic integrity? Yep. Should she have injected herself into the equation so that MAYBE something resembling quality entertainment had a shot of being aired? You bet.

    The promiscuous Vicky and the gay Sammy are both amazing supporting characters in that they had story arcs that dared to say something profound about gender and sexual politics in a time when being gay wasn't as cool as it is today.

    For all the rebelling against the so-called establishment, that is EXACTLY how you should feel coming out of college. That spirit is remiss as we get older and calloused by life's circumstances.

    And I graduated with honors from one of the best schools in the country, and there are plenty of words I can't define. Also, parents are the worst!

  10. Ooh, Cake, I love you, but...I do remember being 22. I will fully acknowledge that I had what seems to be an atypical experience compared to my Monster brethren. I am NOT trying to "white people problems" this, but I had already been on my own for three years, so leaving college wasn't so much entering the work force as I was already there and it was a break to not have to do schoolwork anymore. And the parents are the worst thing--I know you're being lighthearted, but my father is a drug addict and an honest-to-God felon, and my mom tried really hard but I was still working to pay for my own clothes and haircuts by the time I was fifteen. I was primary caretaker of my younger siblings until I went to college. When Lelaina's dad offers to buy her a car, I want to jump through the screen and hug him. When you're broke you don't have principles about the make and model of car you drive. Obviously, this is a film speaking to an experience so different from mine that it might as well be in another language. I should go watch Finding Forrester or something. I'm the man now, dog.

    And the movie makes the point on its own about the word "irony" by having Troy define it.

    I hope no one is misreading my vitriol. I was playing up my anger to be humorous. I'm not suggesting that I'm better than anyone else--I *own* a copy of Drive Me Crazy. I'm not a witch. I'm you!

  11. BF, I hear you and understand you and hope to have more discussions like these in future internet debates and IRL chats. Also, I love that we're having Real Talk heart-to-hearts on MOBFD. We win the internet today!