With it's hipper-than-thou attitude and frequent attempts at cinema verite spontaneity, "Reality Bites" is a mirror of pop culture rather than, as it tries to be, a mockery of the same. It looks for all the world like a version of Cameron Crowe's "Singles" reworked for the "Beverly Hills 90210" crowd. But where "Singles" put a microscope to relationships in the '90s, "Reality Bites" cops out at every opportunity to do the same. Instead of being profound, it's just obvious.
As the film open, Lelaina Pierce (Winona Ryder) is working as a glorified gopher for a local television station. Her tasks are no more demanding than fixing coffee for the show's acerbic star, Grant Gubler (John Mahoney), but she is gaining valuable experience that will help her in her chosen career. Plus, she gets to use the station's equipment to put together a documentary about the tribulation of her generation, which project she has been working on for months. Lelaina's roommate, Vicki Miner (Janeane Garofalo), works for The Gap and goes through men like there's no tomorrow.
On the male front there's Troy Dyer (Ethan Hawke) who can't seem to hold onto jobs and dreams of someday being a music star. There's also Michael Grates (Ben Stiller), a junior executive at an MTV-ish network whom Lelaina literally runs into one day while driving. How these men figure into the story is that Troy, a good friend of Lelaina and Vicki, winds up moving in with them when he gets fired from his most recent job. Meanwhile, Michael has turned an unfortunate collision into an opportunity to date Lelaina.
But Troy isn't the only one who ends up jobless. Lelaina, who doesn't like the way she is treated at the station, sets herself to be fired by printing embarrassing things on Grant's cue cards. As fate would have it, Michael is very interested in Lelaina's video documentary and proceeds to sell it to his own network. They chop it up in a typically MTV-like fashion and the result is worse than anything Lelaina could imagine. This incident causes her to sort out what and, more importantly, who is important in her life. Is it the slick but inarticulate Michael or the grungy but creative Troy?
Ben Stiller, of the self-named canceled TV show, directed "Reality Bites" in addition to being one of its stars. Of the two hats he wears, the acting one suits him best. He has a quirky screen presence that makes the most out of what otherwise might have been a stereotypical yuppie character. The film could have really benefitted from him spending more time in front of the camera than behind it.
Instead of being the quintessential film for and about Generation X, "Reality Bites" falls into the common trap of being too smug for its own good. Instead of being nonconformist, the movie comes off as typical Hollywood puffery in a dime store disguise.