If some independent body ranked the most embarrassing attempts at early-'90s Generation X-ploitation, the strongest candidates would be OK Soda, that Subaru commercial where the floppy-haired teen babbles about his car being "like punk rock," and the dreary 1994 romantic comedy Reality Bites. Arriving two years after Cameron Crowe's more credible Seattle romance Singles, and about six months before the smartly neutral Friends, Reality Bites embodied seemingly every odious post-Nirvana media trend. The title alone was laughably faux-hip, and the movie's portrait of slackerdomlimply enacted by Winona Ryder, Ethan Hawke, Steve Zahn, and Janeane Garofalowas both broad and shallow.
In a picture full of painful moments, it's hard to decide on the lowest point. Budding documentary filmmaker Ryder refusing to let her artless interview footage be juiced up by Ben Stiller's music-video channel? Smug, dirty-haired rocker Hawke spouting poseur put-downs? Garofalo's AIDS scare? The post-collegiate pals ironically dancing around a convenience store to "My Sharona"? Or naming their favorite Good Times episodes? Or singing "Conjunction Junction"?
It would be nice, on the occasion of the film's 10th anniversary and attendant special-edition DVD, to redefine Reality Bites as a goofy, harmless artifact of its time, the grunge-era equivalent of Maynard G. Krebs on The Many Loves Of Dobie Gillis. But the DVD makes that tough, with its overly reverent half-hour "remembrance" featurette and commentary track by director Stiller and screenwriter Helen Childress (who wrote the movie when she was 19, with much tinkering by producers looking to make "a Big Chill for twentysomethings").
No one acknowledges the obviousthat a heinous idea got even worse when Stiller signed on to direct. The just-canceled Ben Stiller Show was home to lacerating sketches like "The Grungies," which gave The Monkees a satiric flannel makeover not far removed from Reality Bites' genuinely phony Gen-X-ness, so it's probably no coincidence that the movie's cast squirts an extra shot of venom into lines like "If I could bottle the sexual tension between Bonnie Franklin and Schneider, I could solve the energy crisis." Everyone seems to have at least an unconscious idea of how lousy and opportunistic the movie is.
Reality Bites holds some fascination today, for its streamlined conception of what the early '90s were all about, and for marking one of the first appearances of Stiller's soon-to-be-ubiquitous inarticulate-neurotic character. But no matter how much the filmmakers may wish "the moment has been appropriately captured" (as Hawke says at one point), it's far more significant that the DVD includes promotional clips for The A-Team, Knight Rider, Magnum P.I., and Quantum Leap. That's some nostalgia that Reality Bites' target audience can actually use.