Reality Bites (1994)

If there’s any one clear enemy that Gen-X kids rallied against in the 90s it was “Phoniness.” It was as if the entire Slacker generation had taken Holden Caulfield’s tirades against “phonies” as gospel instead of mocking the blowhard for his own vapid narcissism, creating a kind of low-effort religious movement that worshipped Authenticity as the main driver of counterculture. Any artist in search of a self-sustaining paycheck was labeled a sell-out. Any bozo who debased themselves by wearing a suit was a corporate clown. Anyone caught caring especially deeply on any topic at all was a sucker & a loser, at least in the eyes of Generation Apathy. That anti-phonies mindset made Gen-X especially difficult to pander to as a movie-going audience, since any studio actually caught putting an effort into marketing to that demographic had already committed their intended audience’s cardinal sin: putting effort into anything at all. So, the few times that Hollywood did openly pander to Gen-X sensibilities mostly produced flops – both critically & financially. While “indie cinema” flourished, Slacker Era studio pictures like Empire Records, Airheads, and Reality Bites were slapped aside as phonies by the Gen-X audience they were actually aimed at, only to gradually gain cult status among younger viewers who foolishly looked up to that generation as The Cool Kids.

Speaking as a foolish Millennial myself, I’m highly susceptible to being charmed by these big-studio attempts at X-tremely 90s Gen-X pandering, which is why I recently gave Reality Bites a shot despite its contemporary critical dismissal. It’s easy to see why this film in particular was such a target for claims of corporate phoniness, while goofier titles like Empire Records & Airheads were merely forgotten as trivialities. It’s just so achingly sincere as a romantic comedy in a way that just does not jive at all with Gen-X apathy politics. Reality Bites tries to have it both ways in “giving voice” to a generation that only wants to eat pizza, watch syndicated television, and smoke weed out of half-crushed soda cans while also committing wholeheartedly to a traditional romantic triangle plot. Because all three participants in that central melodrama are such Apathetic brats, it’s difficult to care at all about who ends up with whom as the story shakes out, which I’m saying even as a product of the Radical Empathy generation that eagerly followed in the Slackers’ footsteps. Reality Bites is terminally phony, but only because it can’t find a proper way to marry genuine heartfelt emotion with the who-cares slackerdom of its target demographic. In the attempt, it amounts to nothing at all, just wasted time.

The one saving grace of this big-studio Slacker facsimile is the charm of its Ultra 90s cast. If nothing else, Winona Ryder is always some baseline level of delightful, apparently even as a privileged brat with no sense of morals, goals, or an internal life. Jeanine Garofalo & Steve Zahn are likewise adorably chummy as her pizza-loving, couch-dwelling roommates, so much so that you wish the movie were solely about that trio’s friendship so you could spend more time in their smoky living room with them, just hanging out. Instead, the film details a romantic rivalry in which a greasy go-nowhere musician (Ethan Hawke) and a yuppie corporate stooge (Ben Stiller) play tug of war with Ryder’s confused heart – a literalized conflict between Authenticity & Phoniness. I’ll spare you the reveal of which undeserving beau she chooses in this review, but know this: the movie would have been vastly improved if it didn’t care about that romantic conflict at all. Reality Bites pretends to be interested in the static ennui of a generation with no sense of ambition or enthusiasm for participating in established social norms, but it quickly bails on that inert navel-gazing to instead dive headfirst into the normiest bullshit I can possibly think of: a potentially flourishing young woman wasting her time on two bonehead men who don’t deserve a second’s pause.

Directed by Ben Stiller around the time when he was producing much more successful Gen-X comedy with The Ben Stiller Show, Reality Bites does make some admirable motions towards actively mocking its own Slacker sensibilities instead of merely pandering to them. Stiller was genius to cast himself as the nexus of this sarcastic, self-effacing humor. As a suited network exec for an MTV-parodying cable channel called In Your Face Television, Stiller positions himself as a money-grubbing goon who literally peddles youth counterculture for cheap payouts. Ryder’s character is an amateur documentarian who interviews her immediate social circle about their post-college ennui as a self-satisfying art project, which Stiller turns around to sell to his network as a slapstick comedy mutation of The Real World. This line of generational parody brilliantly goes one level deeper in the end credits, when Stiller’s network exec bozo turns the love triangle drama that drives the film into a scripted Gen-X soap opera. If Reality Bites were ever going to speak directly to its intended audience, this self-parody would have to have been way more pronounced & exaggerated to mean much of anything. As is, it takes the romantic lives of the privileged brats it lightly ribs very seriously, so unfortunately all that registers is its tragic phoniness as a corporate product.

Aesthetics-wise, there’s a lot to admire here. The film’s soundtrack is peppered with some pure 90s car-cassette gems, including the 5-star Lisa Loeb classic “Stay,” which it popularized with a tie-in music video (sadly, a dead artform). Ryder & Garofalo’s costuming is distinctly College Grad 90s chic, which is a pleasure in itself. However, the movie’s strongest asset is its VHS camcorder-style cinematography meant to mimic Ryder’s D.I.Y. documentary project, a vivid visual texture achieved by a young Emmanuel Lubezki of all people. The thing is, though, that you can get those same camcorder vibes from Soderbergh’s Sex, Lies, and Videotape without having to hang out with total dipshits for 100 minutes. Nothing is good enough to survive the contrived, dispiriting dirge of this film’s love triangle conflict: not Lubezki’s spectacularly Authentic camerawork, not Stiller’s astute Gen-X self-parody, not even Ryder’s consistently stellar on-screen charm. Reality Bites isn’t a total waste of time, but it’s also not much of anything at all. It’s ultimately stuck between two disparate sensibilities—the romantic & the apathetic—and thus ultimately panders to no one. This is one of those cases where the Gen-X kids were right to shrug it off, of which there are many since their collective impulse was to immediately shrug off Everything.

-Brandon Ledet

Shirley Valentine (1989)

Years ago, I came across a movie clip of a middle-aged woman yelling out of an open window, “I’m going to Greece for the sex! Sex for breakfast, sex for dinner, sex for tea, and sex for supper!” I thought it was hilarious. Recently, I found out that this was a snippet from the 1989 British rom-com Shirley Valentine. Well, I finally got around to watching it last night, and I absolutely loved it. The film was directed by Lewis Gilbert (Alfie, The Spy Who Loved Me), so I expected nothing but the best to start with.

Shirley Valentine (Pauline Collins) is a bored, middle-aged housewife in Liverpool. Her marriage has lost its spark and her children are no longer living at home. This is an archetype we’ve seen time and time again, but Shirley is different. She’s a wild and witty woman at heart, and she reveals this side of herself when breaking the fourth wall at the beginning of the film. This technique worked well for me because I felt like Shirley was having a genuine conversation with me over a cup of tea. I love that sort of intimacy in a film. It gets me personally invested in a character, and the film gets my full, undivided attention until the very end. During these intimate little conversations with the audience, Shirley reveals that she always wanted to travel, and her dreams come true when her feminist friend Jane (Alison Steadman) wins two tickets to Greece and wants to take Shirley with her. The way the film pokes fun at “feminist” Jane has not aged well at all. Jane comments that “All men are potential rapists” and is paranoid of every man that is around her.  It’s probably the only aspect of the film that I disliked.

Traveling to Greece without telling her family, Shirley fills the gap in her life that was making her so miserable. She gains the confidence she so desperately needed, and she even has a fling with one of the locals! When her trip comes to an end, she bails on her flight back to Liverpool and returns to Greece. At this point, the film makes it seem like she is in love with her Greek beau and wants to be with him, but that’s not what happens. She runs into him sweet-talking another tourist with the same pick-up line he used on her, and just when I thought she was going to slap him or break down crying, she puts a big smile on her face and asks for a job at his restaurant (I’m not sure if he owns it or just works there). I loved this little twist so much. It’s nice to see women in late 1980s film doing things for themselves and recognizing their worth.

Apparently, the film Shirley Valentine is based on the play of the same name that also starred Pauline Collins. The play was an international hit and had a successful run on Broadway and London’s West End. The world of Shirley Valentine is much bigger than I expected, and I plan on exploring every bit of it.

-Britnee Lombas

The Big Sick (2017)

The Big Sick might be the sole Judd Apatow production to date that would benefit from a longer runtime. Written by real-life married couple & longtime comedy world mainstays Kumail Nanjiani & Emily Gordon, the film attempts to cram the bizarre true story about their personal relationship into the structure of a traditional romcom. In that respect, it’s mostly successful. The film is touching, sweet, and darkly funny in its awkward, vulnerably human reactions to an impossible romantic scenario. However, by molding a real, nuanced story into the shape of a three act, trope-laden genre structure, the film tends to glaze over some of its most essential relationships in a way that distorts its focus & undercuts its own power. Over time, The Big Sick turns out not to be about romance at all, but about unlikely partnerships that form in its absence. When its romcom genre structure demands that it return to that romance, then, the overall result is a picture that somehow isn’t self-aware of the emotional hook that makes it feel truly special in its best, most distinctive moments. With a little more screentime & a little less adherence to genre that may not have been the case.

Kumail Nanjiani stars as a younger version of himself, an aimless college graduate trying to stay afloat in the Chicago stand-up comedy scene & to maintain a relationship with his devout Muslim parents despite his own secular, Scorsese-esque crisis of faith. A Pakistani immigrant family, Nanjiani’s parents & brother push him to both pursue a more lucrative career & to submit to a traditional arranged marriage romance. Instead, he pays rent as an Uber driver & falls in love with a white girl. It’s a move his brother disappointedly calls cliche & his parents disown him over. The most shocking aspect of this family-destroying relationship isn’t that it bucks against Islamic values, however. Nanjiani’s life is disrupted when his new, white girlfriend, furious that he’s kept their relationship a secret as long as possible, is bedridden with a medically-induced coma and is faced with the precipice of death. He meets her family for the first time while she’s unconscious in the ICU & they’re technically broken up, leaving the parents suspicious as to why he cares enough to wait by her side. The questions this situation raises are vast in range. Will the girlfriend’s family remain cold to Kumail’s concern for their near-dead, comatose daughter? Will Kumail’s own family invite him back to the fold despite his secularism & apparent disregard for tradition? Will the girlfriend accept him back in her life when she recovers? Will she recover at all? These questions have all been answered by the real life history of the couple who penned the screenplay, but their tension still makes for a great dramatic plot for a modern, heartfelt romcom.

Because Nanjiani stars as (a slightly fictionalized version of) himself, the story mostly follows his personal trajectory as he’s alienated by his cultural, professional, and romantic conflicts. This narrow focus works exceptionally well in the film’s second act, but allows the narrative to stray from its most interesting character dynamics in the bookends of that center: Emily’s coma. Before the coma, Kumail’s relationships with his girlfriend & the eligible Pakistani women his parents pressure into him auditioning are rushed, never given enough room to develop in a significant way. Zoe Kazan is endearing as (the fictionalized version of) Emily, but the screentime she’s allowed isn’t pronounced enough to make her relationship with Kumail feel worth the trouble & commitment it stirs. The Pakistani women are even less fortunate in that respect, essentially reduced to a pile of interchangable photographs in a cigar box. A slightly extended runtime could’ve fixed either deficiency, which is a truly strange thing to wish for in an Apatow production. Instead, the most significant relationship formed onscreen is between Kumail & Emily’s parents. Ray Romano (who is staggeringly impressive here) & Holly Hunter (who’s also great, but less surprisingly so) shape the heart of the film as they cautiously allow Kumail into their lives as Emily’s parents. They’re tense, emotionally vulnerable people suffering their loneliest, most terrifying hour and there’s genuine power in the way they recognize that same hurt in their daughter’s estranged boyfriend. That’s why it’s disappointing when the movie’s romcom genre trappings steer its third act back towards Kumail’s less-defined relationship with Emily (for wholly understandable reasons) instead of resolving or deepening the dynamic that made for its funniest & most devastating moments, his relationship with her parents.

Real life is obviously more complicated & unwieldy than any two hour romcom plot could contain. If The Big Sick were to capture the entirety of Kumail & Emily’s bizarre story, it’d be twice as long & half as funny than it is in its current, darkly hilarious, emotionally resonant state. I do think that time constraint limited the film’s potential to be its best self, however, since it downplayed a lot of the potential romantic partners in Kumail’s life to instead fully develop his relationship with Emily’s parents, only to double back to the romantic narrative as a convenient genre tool at the last minute. Obviously, if my main complaint about a film is that there could have been more of it, it’s probably a worthwhile & enjoyable picture as is. The jokes are funny. The romantic triumphs are rewarding. The cultural details of the stand-up comedy world setting & Pakistani familial dynamics make for a memorably specific, distinct experience. It’s just a little frustrating that the most significant, exciting relationships of the movie are sacrificed for a more traditional, Apatow style romcom plot instead of being freely explored in the darkly funny indie film melancholy territory they deserve. There are at least a handful of films that have already detail romantic relationships somewhat similar to Kumail & Emily’s story in The Big Sick, as odd & coma-specific as it is, but Kumail’s relationship with Emily’s parents is something much more unique & worth examining. A better, more self-aware film might have reconciled that, either by narrowing its focus or extending its runtime.

-Brandon Ledet