Tuesday, April 15, 2014

REALITY BITES: Blu-ray (Universal 1994) Universal Home Video

The abject tedium of day to day living is enough to get anyone down. Dissatisfaction with direction in life – or rather, lack thereof; the disillusionment that comes from knowing one has played by the rules, only to be trounced by the status quo; realizing – despite best intentions, there may be no proverbial ‘light’ at the end of a tunnel…what can I tell you? Reality Bites, or so it would seem, according to director/star, Ben Stiller and his scathingly on-point Generation X dramedy from 1994. 

Gen-X has since become the ‘catch-all’ for a cohort of then ‘young adults’ – now entering middle age – who, try as they might, seemed doomed, discarded and forgotten in their own time. In retrospect, we’ve all become Gen-Xer’s since; world events and homegrown dilemmas conspiring to rob the nation of its once blind-eyed optimism, faith, and place of relative safety. In many ways, Reality Bites prefigures the beginning of ‘end times’ for this spend/spend, and, 'life’s good' period in America’s cultural renaissance (now, in steep decline), though fondly recalled with warm, fuzzy affections as the 1980’s; a decade of profound enthusiasm for the future.
All that is gone now. But in 1994, it was yet a distant memory and Stiller’s film, despite seeming preciously cynical then, has since managed, rather effectively, to tap into this growing malaise and pessimism.  It bears a brief reprise herein; that any great society is judged – not by its technological/scientific and/or political demarcations, but rather – its contributions to the world of art (music/literature/theater/movies and television). Art informs, reflects and inspires. But it can also condemn, stifle, cripple and brutalize the audience; creating its own normalcy along the way, thereafter adopted – nee absorbed – into our cultural fabric. Yes, art is that powerful and the movies – in their ability to saturate the human frame of reference with towering, cleverly-composed images, designed to manipulate and mimic reality – arguably, remain the most influential cursor of them all. 
Only in retrospect can we truly see Reality Bites as an ominous predictor of how far American culture has spiraled out of control; the implosion ingeniously wrapped inside the paradox of a romantic/comedy – arguably, without the proverbial happy ending. Yes - lovers, Lelaina Pierce (Winona Ryder) and Troy Dyer (Ethan Hawke) meet in the middle of their flawed relationship before the final fadeout. But there’s no future in it for either of them; this lost waif and her scuzzy Lochenvar, who looks as though he would benefit from a bath in Varsol.  No, Lelaina is drifting – given up on a promising future – twice – first, as the backstage gofer on a popular daytime variety TV show, tyrannically mismanaged by its ensconced and curmudgeonly host, Grant Gubler (John Mahoney), then again – trading in a hopeful alliance with waspish MTV-inspired producer, Michael Grates (Ben Stiller) for a very dubious future involving Hawke’s unemployable and very bitter street poet.
Into this mix, come the unwitting family: Lelaina’s mom, Charlane McGregor (played with motivational decapitating precision by Swoozie Kurtz) and her bumbling second husband, Wes (Harry O’Reilly), Lelaina’s equally obtuse father, Tom (Jo Don Baker): and well-intended friends; Vickie Miner (Janeane Garofalo) and Troy’s introspective book work, Sammy Gray (Steve Zahn), whose closeted homosexuality serves as a burgeoning subplot, never entirely resolved by the end of our story.
Depending on one’s point of view, Reality Bites is either a sad epitaph to the 1980’s or a remarkably clear-eyed prologue, heralding the cultural perspectives we have adopted today; scornful, bored with life, and utterly lacking in any sort of impetus to jerk ourselves free from the societal malady.  The characters populating Reality Bites are not ambitious. Arguably, they’re not even marginally motivated, but beaten in their initiatives and thoroughly careworn before their time. Point blank: Lelaina and her friends have given in and given up. What’s the point? In fact, there doesn’t seem to be any. In some ways, Reality Bites is the Seinfeld of movies; a show about nobodies doing nothing spectacularly well; or as Lelaina puts it “masters at the art of time suckage.”  

Only in retrospect, can we see just how farsighted Reality Bites is: self-mocking and iniquitous; a story about people who not only have lost their will to dream, but perhaps to whom the concept of dreaming itself is tragically foreign. Mediocrity, rather than exceptionalism has become the new standard. Arguably, it was always the norm. It is perhaps a bit much to claim Reality Bites for this foretelling. But there’s little to deny the film its prophetic gesture; putting a period to one era, while punctuating the start of another.
Reality Bites begins with commencement – the real beginning of the end for Lelaina Pierce, an aspiring videographer, honor roll student and class valedictorian, attempting to disseminate her own brand of self-appointed prophetic wisdom to the graduating class. Alas, her cue cards get jumbled at the most inopportune moment, her rhetorical inquiry as to how her generation will face the moral/social/political and economic challenges of tomorrow, resolved with a rather deflated “I don’t know.”  We advance to an undisclosed period in the immediate future; Vickie and Lelaina living together in a cramped apartment in Houston. Lelaina is working for obnoxious Grant Gubler who, to the public at least, remains the genial, Cheshire-grinning co-host of Good Morning Grant! – an utterly vacuous TV variety show. Lelaina’s repeated attempts to improve the program are met with Gubler’s abject contempt. He even threatens to fire her if she persists in her endeavors to elevate the overall tenor of the talk show.
As retribution, Lelaina decides to sabotage Grant’s cue cards. Since Grant never bothers to pre-screen his cards, he dives headlong into his own embarrassment on live television, reading Lelaina’s words that brand him a pedophile while interviewing a guest about little girl’s self-esteem. It’s an amusing vignette to be sure, but a lethal blow to Lelaina’s career. For very soon, she discovers jobs are not plentiful in her line of work. Her misguided mother, Charlaine attempts to put a positive spin on her unemployment situation, suggesting she get hired at Wal-Mart where they even hire “the retarded”.  
In the meantime, Vickie decides to move an old college pal, Troy Dyer, into their apartment to help with expenses. After a round of debilitating job interviews, Lelaina quickly realizes how inept and unsuitable she is for just about every other line of work. She is inadvertently rear-ended by producer, Michael Grates who isn’t paying attention to the road, but wrapping up a big deal on his cell phone. After an initial exchange of telephone numbers – for insurance purposes – Michael decides to ask Lelaina out.
It’s an awkward call, but a really good first date. Both discover they have much in common. Michael offers to present some of the raw footage Lelaina has been working on in her spare time for a documentary about her friends, to executives at ‘In Your Face’ TV. Having an ‘in’ with Michael could really boost Lelaina’s chances for landing the career of her dreams. Alas, advancing Lelaina’s prospects doesn’t bode well for Troy’s chances with Lelaina.  As far as Troy is concerned, Lelaina doesn’t need money to make her happy. She just needs him. She, instead, admonishes Troy for being chronically unemployed, for lacking the initiative to even go out and look for a job, and for getting fired from various part-time jobs he’s temporarily held. The irony, of course, is that Lelaina has yet to recognize Troy is more her speed than Michael.  She’s the same type of screw up as Troy; one who would rather have wrecked her reputation in the industry she professes to aspire to with a silly prank (the cue card fiasco) than diligently work around the obstacles to get where she thinks she ought to be.  
Troy isn’t exactly a patient man. Okay, he’s a fairly cruel pragmatist, forcing Lelaina to accept him with a deliberate and rather vindictively systematic attempt to ruin her chances with Michael. For example, after Lelaina and Michael’s first kiss, Troy condescendingly inquires, “Did he dazzle you with his extensive knowledge of mineral water, or was it his in-depth analysis of Marky Mark that finally reeled you in?” After Troy and Lelaina sleep together, Troy is even more pitiless, “You can't navigate me. I may do mean things, and I may hurt you, and I may run away without your permission, and you may hate me forever, and I know that scares the living shit outta you, 'cuz you know I'm the only real thing you got.” 
The Troy/Lelaina relationship is, in fact, the most fascinating aspect of Reality Bites; what sets it apart from just another cornball fluff piece about oversexed twenty-somethings bumping uglies in the night. Troy and Lelaina are so right for each other it’s unpleasant to watch as they tear at one another – or rather, tear down the barriers and artificial role-playing between them to get to the heart of the matter. Or perhaps, ‘heart’ is the wrong word. These two have a whole ‘cerebral/sexual’ thing going on and it’s delicious to watch.
Vickie, a sales associate, recently promoted to manager of The Gap, is rather laissez faire on the dating scene. Her promiscuity forces her to face the very real risk she has contracted HIV – a fear narrowly averted when her AIDS blood test comes back negative. Meanwhile, Sammy – everybody’s even-keeled friend – has remained celibate to hide from his conservative parents the fact he is gay.  As Helen Childress’ screenplay progresses, everyone is forced to come to terms with the crises and dilemmas presently afflicting their lives.
Vickie convinces Sammy to tell his parents he is gay. They are distraught, angry and hurt by his revelation. But the confession allows Sammy to move on with his life. Vickie decides to clean up her act after her encouraging blood test results. The imperfect solution to Michael and Lelaina’s relationship persists. She is utterly humiliated when her documentary about all of their lives – a labor of love with social significance – is butchered in the editing process by the exec’s at Michael’s network; her serious reflections distilled into a sort of extended Saturday Night Live comedy skit, intermittently interrupted with pop-tune infused nonsense. 
Storming out of the premiere, Lelaina is ripe for the picking and Troy wastes no time encouraging a mutual seduction. This leads to one hot night of passion. However, in the morning things look very different.  Commitment-shy to a fault, Troy nervously scurries away – and this, after professing his undying love the night before. Shortly thereafter, Troy all but disappears from Lelaina’s life; the death of his own father forcing him to realize how important Lelaina is to him.
Michael returns, attempting to reconcile with Lelaina at the coffee house where Troy performs. Sensing Lelaina is about to discard him for Michael, Troy indulges in an impromptu vamp, dedicating the song to her (with very crude lyrics that reveals for Michael the specifics of Troy and Lelaina’s one night stand). Disappointed, frustrated and humiliated, Michael leaves the bar, chasing after Lelaina. He is too late to catch her and Troy and Lelaina eventually reconcile.  The movie’s improbable and uncertain ending is interrupted midway through the end credits where we are treated to a brief tag, featuring two characters ‘Laina’ and ‘Roy’ – transparent parodies of Lelaina and Troy – having a very shallow/severely scripted argument about their sinking relationship. As the faux credits to this ‘episode’ roll, we discover Michael is the producer, suggesting he has turned his own failed relationship with Lelaina into a hit spinoff for his network.   
Reality Bites was the inspiration of producer, Michael Shamberg who, after reading a screenplay by Helen Childress, became obsessed with the idea of making a movie about real people in their twenties struggling to make a name and a life for themselves. As it turns out, Childress was largely cribbing from her own experiences as well as that of her friends, working through their own post-graduate angst and uncertainties during the recession to find their niche, their purpose and their futures. Shamberg persisted. Three years and seventy drafts later, Reality Bites began production; Ben Stiller’s fame on The Ben Stiller Show ensuring his participation as co-star and director. Stiller’s involvement necessitated several rewrites. It also changed the organic chemistry of the subplot involving Vickie and Sammy’s characters; their more detailed back stories reduced to mere cameo at Stiller’s behest, to concentrate on the lover’s triangle between Troy, Lelaina and Michael instead.
Every studio balked at the project, including TriStar – who had initially agreed to fund Reality Bites, then promptly reneged and put the film into turnaround.  Stiller and Childress, along with producer Stacey Sher, managed to convince Texas’ film commission to pay out of pocket for location scouting. Ultimately, however, it was Winona Ryder’s involvement that opened the doors over at Universal; her request of Ethan Hawke to co-star, willingly granted by the powers that be. Universal had heavily campaigned to cast Gwyneth Paltrow as Vickie. But Ben Stiller, had worked with Janeane Garofalo on his own show, and pushed for her involvement on the project instead.
Ultimately, Universal gave in, after the revised script severely pared down the part. On a relatively brief 42 day shoot in Houston and Los Angeles, and a budget of $11.5 million, Reality Bites went on to gross $20,982,557; a sizable hit by most any standard. I’ll confess – numbers don’t really impress me, and rarely, do they tell the whole story. Twenty years later, Reality Bites has not dated; its message of an imploding society and misanthropic youth, destined to perpetuate and expedite its downfall, still rings loud and clear. The film is blessed with good solid chemistry between its three ‘stars’ – Winona Ryder doing the doe-eyed/angst-ridden ingénue best.
For all his involvement behind the camera, Ben Stiller’s Michael really takes a backseat to Ethan Hawke’s Troy. Personal opinion – but I’ve always found it difficult, if not entirely impossible, to appreciate Hawke as a leading man. He’s a competent enough actor, but not very easy on the eyes. However, in Reality Bites, Hawke’s dressed-down, arrogant, bong-smoking trailer trash/drugstore cowboy anti-heroism doesn’t wear thin at all. Hawke gives us a wounded soul – warts and all – and doesn’t hold anything back for a moment. He’s gloriously tainted though never pathetic, and belligerently clear-eyed to a fault without ever becoming overbearing. Stiller’s Michael is, of course, meant to be the counterpoint; clean-cut, respectful, altruistic in his romantic pursuits and sadly, out of his league. In this instance, it really is true: nice guys do finish dead last.
Alas, Helen Childress’ screenplay never promises her audience the proverbial ‘rose garden’. Hence, we don’t really mind it all that much when we get more thorns than blooms along the way. In fact, one of the movie’s salvations is its razorback dialogue; adversarial, ironic and tremendously funny.  In the final analysis, Reality Bites refreshingly lives up to its namesake. This isn’t a movie about perfect people or even imperfect ones finding true love the first, second or third time around. It’s the story of misfits, fools, and people who know better but cannot help themselves. In short, it’s about someone you know intimately – maybe even yourself.  
Universal Home Video’s Blu-ray is a fairly nice treat. Reality Bites divides its run time between Emmanuel Lubezki’s film-based footage and a simulated VHS quality/faux documentarian style; both accurately captured on this hi-def 1080p transfer. Colors are solidly balanced with great-looking flesh tones. Occasionally, we get some startling clarity to boot and fine detail revealed even during scenes shot under low lighting conditions. There’s a good smattering of grain too, rendered with accuracy. Everything looks as it should, except for contrast – which does seem just a tad weak. Not a deal breaker, in my opinion, but not stellar either. The DTS 5.1 audio vastly improves on the old DVD which, let’s be honest, wasn’t all that hard to best. For a 20th Anniversary release, Universal has stacked the extras – deleted scenes, a retrospective, Lisa Loeb’s ‘Stay’ music video and a somewhat meandering commentary from Ben Stiller and Helen Childress. Bottom line: recommended.
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)

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