Freditorial: The Movie I Got Wrong

Fred Topel revisits Ben Stiller's oft-criticized 1990s slacker drama and discovers something important about Reality Bites... and himself.

Fred Topelby Fred Topel

After my interview with Winona Ryder, I wanted to revisit Reality Bites, and also to prep for my interview with Ethan Hawke for Before Midnight. Little did I know it would soon become the Summer of Hawke with The Purge and Getaway, the latter of which comes to DVD and Blu-ray this week. It was also my own personal Summer of Hawke, revisiting a film from my past with a profound new impact.

In 1994 I was a high school junior looking for love, watching “The Ben Stiller Show” on Fox and eagerly anticipating the movie he directed. I saw Reality Bites as a story where the nice guy Stiller played got screwed for being successful and boring when Winona Ryder chose the cool sarcastic slacker dude instead. By the way, “Siskel and Ebert” agreed with me too. I wonder if they ever got the chance to revisit and recontemplate the film.

Now that I’ve lived a lot of life, gotten in touch with my feelings, been successful myself, survived both bad and good relationships and just learned about people and how to read film, I had a drastically different take on Reality Bites. I thought it was worth exploring how we respond to movies at different times in our lives. We all have movies that we liked more when we were younger, or movies we didn’t get until we were older, but it’s really special when a film can provide a time capsule of where you were in your life and how far you’ve come since. I guess spoilers for Reality Bites follow.

Reality Bites Cast

Reality Bites was a romantic comedy about college graduates who found the job market wasn’t all they were promised. Lelaina (Ryder) lives with Vickie (Janeane Garofolo), and their friend Troy Dyer (Hawke) moves in when he loses his latest job. Lelaina is making a video about her college friends, also including Sammy (Steve Zahn), and she starts dating a TV executive, Michael Grates (Stiller). It’s a love triangle between Lelaina, Troy and Michael, but Troy and Lelaina are also struggling with art and work. She’s willing to work her way up in the industry, but rejects non-industry work when she leaves her TV gig. Troy is a musician and really rejects working day jobs. He’s been fired from 11. Also, lots and lots of one-liners.

To the 16-year-old kid, yes, Troy Dyer (Hawke) is just a sarcastic dude who says mean things, funny or not. In my limited experiences dealing with people, let alone limited experience being a person, I couldn’t see that Troy was actually trying to express feelings he didn’t know how to express, and Hawke plays the hell out of this conflict. Troy makes a play for Lelaina (Ryder) early on in the film, which is a really brave and honorable thing to do. She’s already involved with Michael (Stiller) so Troy has at least a 50% chance of rejection, let alone the history of their friendship that he’s risking by admitting he wants to take another step. The 16-year-old Fred probably thought, “Stay away from Michael’s woman, dude.” Now I know that relationships are complicated and if you have feelings, it’s better to express them than to keep them in. It’s not like she was married. When Lelaina rejects him, no wonder he lashes out with the only defense mechanism he has: sarcasm.

Reality Bites Ethan Hawke Winona Ryder

Later in the movie when Troy and Lelaina do sleep together and Troy panics, he does try to talk about his commitment phobias and make up for handling an intimate situation badly, but again lashes out with a particularly insensitive song choice. 16-year-old Fred never forgave Troy for that. Man, I was one judgmental teenager. Now I understand how people deal with emotions. I’m way more forgiving and I applaud Troy for taking baby steps to let down the guard of sarcasm. Of course, it still gives him a movie’s worth of sarcastic one-liners, but you’ve got to give the kids some entertainment for their dollar. Back then movies cost $6.

Maybe there’s been too many Fockers movies, but I no longer see Michael as a nice guy. Or rather, he illuminates what being nice meant to me 20 years ago and that’s a little painful for me to relive. You see, due to various influences including my upbringing, romantic comedies and probably genes, my simple idea of being nice was you make the people you love happy. Seems nice, right? But then if the person you love isn’t happy, you fix them. You do things or give them things to make them happy, until they’re not happy anymore and you have to make them happy again.

That’s what Michael does. Lelaina’s poor so he takes her to fancy restaurants and nice hotels. She wants to be a filmmaker so he tries to help her sell her video project. Really, he’s trying to control her because she has no agency in these exchanges. I don’t think he means to be controlling, but it’s the underhanded unconscious way that douchebags unintentionally hurt people. With good intentions, of course.

Reality Bites Ben Stiller Winona Ryder

Luckily, I’ve learned that it’s not a personal failure if someone I love is unhappy. They’re allowed to feel that and work through it themselves, and being a supportive listener can be even more valuable to them. Relationships based only on making someone else happy last about six weeks. I know, I’ve had several and that’s the median shelf life of those relationships. Eventually the needy person will think of something you can’t fix, or catch on to your solutions and they won’t work anymore. More importantly, in those kinds of relationships, you’re missing out on the partnership and support a healthy relationship should include. And Stiller has played that well meaning, socially awkward, possibly sympathetic but actually self-destructive character in so many movies that I can’t cut him any slack any more.

Then there’s the issue of that video. As a teenager I didn’t mind Michael’s recut MTV “Real World” style version of Lelaina’s video. I was sensitive to artistic integrity, but I didn’t think that should mean being closed off to any feedback. The MTV style edit was extreme, but maybe they could find something in between rambling self-important monologues and pandering soundbites. I still don’t think Lelaina’s original video is that good. Part of becoming a filmmaker is learning how to shape raw footage and kill your babies for the good of the story. The recut has shots of rhinos humping in it though, so that’s tasteless. Maybe 16-year-old Fred thought it was funny. I did know Stiller as a sketch comedy satirist so maybe I saw this as his spoof of MTV reality shows, a genre that’s only gotten worse since ’94.

Reality Bites Ben Stiller

The part where Michael really loses me now is he acts like he didn’t know the editors were cutting the piece that way. Now, if he’s telling the truth and really didn’t know, then he is a terrible television executive and should not be in the business. You’ve got to be aware of what the editing department is doing. When I do video interviews for CraveOnline I send the editors detailed notes because I know how important editing is.

More likely, he knew and thought he was helping Lelaina. In that case, regardless of the final product, if you’re going to have a discussion about artistic integrity vs. commercial viability, you’ve got to include the artist in that discussion, especially when she’s your girlfriend. You say, “I’d like more people to see this video. Would you be open to changing the cut, or to a more stylistic approach, to fit a certain exhibitor’s style?” You may come away in a stalemate with no cooperation on either side, but you can’t just spring it on somebody like that. Artists are sensitive, as well they should be. You’re more likely to encourage productive changes with an inclusive process.

Reality Bites 2

I did always have a problem with the slacker mentality. I found nothing admirable about saying, “Hey man, I won’t sell out, so I’d rather do nothing than a menial job to pay the bills.” There is a big difference between taking a job to make ends meet and selling your soul to a corporate monolith. Work ethic is important whether it’s your passion or just providing a service people need. Lelaina actually says something to Troy that articulates what I believe now, but wouldn’t have even imagined before my career started. She tells Troy that he doesn’t have to commit to a job but if he supposedly loves his music, he should at least practice and play gigs, not just wait around.

THAT is the key to artistic integrity and work ethic. Just do it. Do it until you become so good that you can’t help but succeed. 10,000 hours of practice, mastery, Malcolm Gladwell, et al. That’s a lesson for which I might not have been ready for another 10 years, but it was in there all along.

Reality Bites Winona Ryder Ethan Hawke

Frankly, the whole structure of this movie is Lelaina’s self-actualization and Troy’s evolution as a partner. Michael is just a supporting character, a villain structurally speaking. He only shows up to instigate events that are going to force Lelaina to address her issues, or interrupt when Troy is actually trying to open up. From a pure screen time/story structure angle, I should not have identified with him. That was my bad. I’m sure as a teenage boy I was part of the problem. I desperately wanted love but as I now realize, I was trying to fix women by making them happy. It would take me many relationships to learn the unintentional evils of my good intentions, and that I’d have more to give when I became a fully realized person myself rather than a function of pleasing someone else. But how bold of a ‘90s romantic comedy to address the notion of men controlling women. You’ve Got Mail would come out four years later and reward a man for abusing and manipulating the heroine.

A lot of Troy’s sarcasm is directed at Lelaina for letting Michael control him. That was a pretty subversive dig at romantic comedy structure and I definitely didn’t have the relationship experience to understand it. She can have two men offering her different things, or three or four or however many. All that matters is what she wants and who she decides will be most compatible. Troy may not be quite there yet either, but he saw that it was a problem if she were to let either of them control her. Of course the partner gets a say in the relationship too, but this is Lelaina’s story and it’s her journey to realizing that the more abrasive choice might be trying to give her the freedom to be herself with him.

Reality Bites

I probably couldn’t have appreciated just how ‘90s Reality Bites was during the ‘90s. There are so many scenes in The Gap! Vickie works at The Gap, but the idea of a movie taking place in The Gap baffles me now. The idea of college graduates not finding work was probably lost on me while I was still in high school too. I would find myself in that boat in another five or six years. Also poignant is a relatively early portrait of a gay man coming out to his mother and an AIDS scare.

Reality Bites hasn’t become one of my favorite movies or anything and I don’t know if I’ll ever watch it again, but I’ll never forget the way it illuminated my state of mind at two distinct points in my life. It speaks to the evolving journey of a film lover. No movie has to begin and end with your first viewing, or even your most recent viewing. The more life you live, the more totally different experiences you will bring to a story. We want our favorite movies to live forever and this is how they do. The bonus gift is that sometimes, even movies that once rubbed you the wrong way can become powerful personal experiences in 20 years. And I’m still just getting started. I wonder what I’ll really think of Meet the Fockers when I’m 60! 


Fred Topel is a staff writer at CraveOnline and the man behind Best Episode Ever and Shelf Space Weekly. Follow him on Twitter at @FredTopel.