Monday, June 20, 2011

Reality Still Bites

Generation Xers often get a bad rap for being nihilistic slackers who whine and complain a lot even though they never had it as tough as their Baby Boomer parents who had to always get up and walk across the room to change the channel and if they wanted to listen to music they had to use a record player rather than convenient mix tapes. As a member of the Xers, I've often felt this stereotype was pretty broad-brush--most of my peers work, keep their complaints subdued (because no one wants to hear your bitching!) and see their cynicism as more healthy skepticism than nihilistic grumbling.

But then I see the film "Reality Bites" and can immediately understand why our elders look down on this generation. The plot, to the extent there is one, is this--a bunch of recent college graduates in Houston (who incidentally don't seem to be suffering from stifling heat, even though this is summer? Hmmm....) are coping with the difficulties of work and romance in Depression-era 1994 (remember how hard it was to scrape by back in the '90s?). The protagonist--played by an ever charming Wynona Ryder, hey what happened to her? Oh yeah, shoplifting--is complaining about not being a major success in media at age 23, which is understandable because at 23 most people have made their first million and wrote a best selling novel. She sabotages her job because her boss was a jerk who was going to fire her anyway (so goodbye job reference! Much better than trying to leave with dignity and burn no bridges, but hey she's 23), and meantime has to decide between yuppie TV producer Ben Stiller and Ethan Hawke, who plays the sort of character that most films have get his comeuppance in the form of a tank of sewage landing on him to everyone's amusement.

More on Hawke's character, but first, it turns out that Ryder gets super pissed at Stiller because he takes some video she created and got his network to run with it, and in the process the network "ruined her vision" by editing it in such a way as to make it marketable. Horrors! Imagine a budding artist having to make compromises to get ahead, so that eventually they can have the pull and independence to realize their talents down the road! Especially at age 23, when you only have so many good years left! Instead of pointing out that Ryder is being an idiot, and maybe getting a foot in the door is great for her career, especially since her then-current source of income was ripping off her father's generous offer to pay her credit card for a year, Stiller instead whines and pleads in a way that NEVER gets a guy in bed with a woman ever again. This is the first truly awful lesson of the movie.

The second has to do with Hawke's character, the goateed "artsy" slacker dude who got fired from 12 jobs for "not giving a crap" and has to sleep on Ryder's couch and sponge off of everyone. (His comeback when this mooching is pointed out is to then retort that Ryder is ripping off her dad's credit card--which, albeit true, is beside the point--at least she's paying rent regardless of familial generosity; this doesn't give him license to mooch and not try and help out income-wise) He plays coffee house gigs, which is fine, but doesn't pay the bills. Now, I like a lovable slacker mooch as much as the next guy, but where this guy crosses the line is in his complete contempt for people like Stiller's character--for being "yuppies" and idiots for doing things like working. Hawke's character oozes condescension, dropping smarmy jibes and references while all along complaining about how hard he has it. And instead of learning the error of his snobbish jerky ways, he (SPOILER) gets the girl in the end.

Maybe in 1994--at the height of grunge "complaint rock" and teenage angst--this was a fresh, cutting edge character. The guy with lots of potential, but who got burned out on "the system" at a young age. But this type wears thin--yes, questioning the "system" is fine and all that, but harming others with your sloth and carrying an air of unjustified elitism just makes you a jackass.

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