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

Little Modern Women

It used to be a matter of course that a new big-screen adaptation of Louisa May Alcott’s beloved novel Little Women would go into production every few years. As cinema jumped from silence to sound, from black & white to color, a new version of the same story would grace the screen – ensuring that each new generation of young readers in love with Alcott’s setting & characters could experience them in the flesh. Sadly, that tradition dried up after the 1940s version (featuring Elizabeth Taylor as an overgrown Amy, the littlest woman), leaving a forty-five-year gap before Little Women would be refreshed in adaptation for a new generation. The two major productions that ended that drought—1994’s Gillian Armstrong adaptation and the 2019 Greta Gerwig remix—had a lot of catching up to do, then. It wouldn’t be enough to just revive the same story with the updated stars & filmmaking tech of the modern day. Armstrong & Gerwig instead had to overhaul the material in a drastic display to make up for all the lost time. Both resulting films are great works in their own respects, but only one of the pair truly swung for the fences in its attempt to launch Little Women into the modern world.

On its surface, the 1994 version of Little Women appears to play it safe in its duties as a literary adaptation. Like the Old Hollywood adaptations that came before it, it tells the story of the fictional March sisters’ coming-of-age during the leanest years of the Civil War (an apparently autobiographical account of Alcott’s own youth) in a traditional, linear narrative. The will-they/won’t-they drama of its protagonist’s potentially romantic friendship with the wealthy boy next door drives the heart of the story. Meanwhile, the incidental episodes amongst her sisters that make the novel such a recognizably genuine depiction of childhood (which is almost entirely a series of incidental episodes, at least in memory) fill out the frame around that structural romantic storyline, so that Amstrong’s take on the material is practically a hangout film as much as it is a costume drama. Like in the previous routine of adaptations, the major overhaul in Armstrong’s picture was in seeing up-to-date actors breathe fresh air into iconic scenes from the long-familiar source material. The star-power appeal of 90s-specific heavy-hitters like Winona Ryder, Claire Danes, Susan Sarandon, Kirsten Dunst, and baby-faced newsie Christian Bale is the major update to the source material in Armstrong’s adaptation, same as in the previous revisions. The only difference (besides sound & color no longer being new inventions) is in just how much that youth-culture casting was allowed to reshape the text.

In particular, Winona Ryder’s starring role as Jo March is the casting choice that really jolts Alcott’s writing into a 90s era sensibility. As a hopeless 90s Kid™ myself, my love for Winona Ryder as a screen presence predates even my earliest childhood memories – thanks largely to her collaborations with Tim Burton in Beetlejuice & Edward Scissorhands. I still wouldn’t exactly call her approach to acting “versatile,” though. Like fellow Gen-X icons Keanu Reeves, Christina Ricci, and Jeanine Garofalo, Ryder more or less always gives the same performance no matter the project; the trick is just casting her in the exact right role. The brilliance of casting Ryder as Jo March is that her schtick fits both the original profile of the character (a powder keg mix of dorky enthusiasm within her home & righteous disgust with the ways of the world at large) and is distinctly of her own time – effortlessly conveying a sardonic wit central to Gen-X cynicism. If nothing else, the way she rants about the ills of the outside world and indulges in oddball slang like “Capital!” & “Christopher Columbus!” from her writing desk can’t help but recall the parallel narration of Ryder’s career-defining role in Heathers. If Armstrong’s Little Women were made just a few years later it might have updated the setting around Ryder to 1990s suburbia, the way Emma was transformed into Clueless or The Taming of the Shrew became 10 Things I Hate About You. As is, Ryder is doing all of that modernization work herself, performing Alcott’s century-old text with a 90s attitude & inflection.

Greta Gerwig’s more recent, currently Oscar-nominated take on Little Women was much more stylistically aggressive in its attempts to modernize Alcott’s novel. At the very least, it doesn’t rely entirely on the 2010s indie darlings of its cast (Saoirse Ronan, Florence Pugh, Laura Dern, Timothée Chalamet) to do all of its heavy lifting in refreshing the material. Instead, Gerwig violently shakes the story loose from the page – assuming that audiences are familiar enough with the source material to appreciate it scrambled out of sequence. In her version, the audience is informed up-front that Jo turned down the well-off heartthrob next door, essentially stripping the story of its will-they/won’t-they drama to push through to other concerns. Instead of following a linear retelling of the entire novel, we watch an adult Jo from the second volume reflect on childhood memories from the first. Meanwhile, debates between Jo and her publisher in New York City prompt metatextual speculations on how, exactly, Little Women relates to Louisa May Alcott’s actual life and what biographical events may have been altered to please her own Male publishers’ demands – forever reshaping how the original text will be interpreted for the screen in the future. In many ways, this recent adaptation of Little Women is about the very act of adapting Little Women – a much headier, more exclusively cinematic approach to the material than the versions that preceded it.

The major narrative innovation of Gerwig’s take on this story is in how it makes the adult half of Jo’s story more compelling by drawing direct parallels to the childhood half. The most iconic, memorable episodes of Little Women tend to fall in its first volume, which captures an enduring portrait of girlhood that allows the work to resonate & reverberate from generation to generation. Centering this adaptation on the adult end of the book is a bold choice, then, but it unlocks a lot of the untapped power of that second half by making direct in-the-moment connections to events from the first. As Jo returns home from New York City to care for a sister who’s taken ill, the familiar sights & personalities of her hometown trigger memories of the book’s most iconic childhood moments, revealing the power of the novel’s bifurcated structure. It also frees Gerwig to pick & choose what parts of the story she wants to emphasize thematically. Gerwig shifts the core story from focusing on Jo’s possible romance with her neighbor to instead exploring her combative relationship with her youngest, brattiest sister. Gerwig also searches for the border between truth & artifice in Alcott’s source material and interrogates how outside influences may have distorted the author’s original vision. While most adaptations lovingly stage Alcott’s exact narrative for the screen, Gerwig’s actively interprets it and its legacy.

There’s a brief image of young children playing pretend as pirates in the March sisters’ attic that flashes in the last minute or so of Gerwig’s Little Women that I cannot stop thinking about. After Jo’s debates with her publisher call into question what “really” happened in her story vs. what literary tastes of the time dictated should happen, I couldn’t help but puzzle over what that image was implying. Was it merely a memory from earlier in Jo’s childhood play than what the book or its resulting movies cover? Was it an implication of how Jo’s published memoir would influence the childhood play of her readers? Or was it a vision of How Things Really Were, as opposed to the distorted version of Jo’s memory that we had been watching the entire film? I don’t really want an Answer to this query. The more important thing is just appreciating how the film’s metatextual self-examination had my mind racing in its final minutes to the point where I got hung up on what, like, three seconds of footage “meant” within the larger story. I really liked how Gillian Armstrong updated Little Women for Generation X by handing the source material over to one of the era’s most distinct personalities (namely, Veronica Sawyer). This latest adaptation from Gerwig is far more adventurous in its own modernization efforts, though. There’s no single image in the 90s version of Little Women that incites personal interpretation or extrapolation the way Gerwig’s film does, which makes the newer film not only more modern but also more outright cinematic.

-Brandon Ledet

Welcome Home, Roxy Carmichael (1990) is to John Hughes’ Oeuvre what Big Business (1988) is to Old Hollywood Comedies

EPSON MFP image

After my discovery that our February Movie of the Month, Big Business, was directed by one third of the ZAZ creative team behind classic genre parodies like Airplane!, Top Secret!, and The Naked Gun, I’ve been trying to make sense of the rest of Jim Abrahams’ catalog. What I found most interesting was that there were only three titles that didn’t fall in line with his genre-defining work in parody comedy. Big Business, as we know, is more of an homage than an outright spoof, but it could’ve easily undergone the typical ZAZ treatment with a couple re-writes. Ruthless People is a much more difficult film to understand in that context. A pitch black comedy inspired by the kidnapping of Patty Hearst (and starring Bette Midler, who steals the show in Big Business), it was made by the full ZAZ team, but never really threatens to be a parody or a spoof of the ransom-driven thriller as a genre. It’s by far the the furthest ZAZ outlier. Much closer in line to what Abrahams achieves in Big Business‘s Old Hollywood pastiche is the Winona Rider comedy Welcome Home, Roxy Carmichael, which feels palpably close to spoofing John Hughes’ work in teen comedies, but ends up functioning much more like a loving tribute.

A moody, gothy Winona Ryder headlines Roxy Carmichael as a fullblown version Aly Sheedy’s dour recluse in The Breakfast Club. Just like Sheedy, she looks like the world’s biggest Robert Smith fan, intentionally  isolates herself from peers, and treats the idea of personal hygiene like the exact kind of afflictions you might acquire if you completely disregarded personal hygiene. The movie pushes her high school “weird kid” attributes to an even more cartoonish degree, though, equipping her with an “ark” of abandoned animals that she adopts like a shanty farm, because that’s apparently what weirdo high schoolers do in their free time. The aching-for-a-boy-out-of-her-league growing pains, poor kid vs. the world class warfare, and uncaring parents all resemble characteristics of Molly Ringwald films like Pretty in Pink and Sixteen Candles, except that they’re all crammed into the same feature. The movie even ends in a Big Dance confrontation, which feels like classic Hughes, and Ryder’s protagonist’s name sounds exactly like what she’d be called if she were the Weird Kid archetype in Not Another 80s Teen Movie: Dinky. Much like with Big Business, the line between homage & spoof feels very thin here & with the right push, Welcome Home, Roxy Carmichael could’ve easily fallen in line with the rest of the ZAZ catalog.

There’s something about working in the John Hughes realm that brings out new territory in Abraham’s work that might’ve been missing in his spoof & pastiche films (and whatever you want to call Ruthless People): genuine heart. It takes an innate understanding of genre tropes to be able to understand how to make an homage or a spoof work as a feature film & here Abrahams recognizes that what distinguishes John Hughes’ brand of 80s teen comedies is their heart on the sleeve sentimentality. It’s possible in this case, though, that he might’ve outdone his source material in creating the homage. Welcome Home, Roxy Carmichael has some brutal character moments, carried by both Winona Ryder & costar Jeff Daniels, who both play broken shells of people who feel cruelly rejected by both the ones they love & the world at large. And instead of bringing the drama to an everything-works-out-fine cinema magic climax, the film instead stages a huge emotional gut punch that feels a little rough for the genre that Abrahams was working in here. It was surprisingly powerful stuff.

It’s difficult to say whether or not a fan of Big Business would necessarily be floored by what’s offered in Welcome Home, Roxy Carmichael. The films are both heavily rooted in 80s fashion & genre convention, so there’s at least a chance that fans would bleed over. What’s far more important, though, is what the two films reveal about Jim Abrahams as a comedy director. It’s tempting to think of the ZAZ team as a sarcastic group of pranksters who simply regurgitate tropes with silly gags added, especially after watching how their comedy style has lead to such creative voids as Fifty Shades of Black, Vampires Suck, and Superfast!. However, what Big Business & Welcome Home, Roxy Carmichael reveal is that Abrahams & his Zucker brother collaborators had a genuine love for the movies they were parodying & a deep understanding of how their tropes could be picked apart, reproduced, and repurposed for a new effect. Whether or not Welcome Home, Roxy Carmichael is just as good as the genuine John Hughes product is debatable (although it’d certainly be an easier case than arguing that Big Business is just as good as the Old Hollywood farces it emulates), but it’s undeniable that Abrahams understood how those films ticked & how they could be replicated for a new effect, a skill he presumably learned as a parody-happy prankster.

For more on February’s Movie of the Month, 1988’s Big Business, check out our Swampchat discussion of the film, a look at its borrowed gag from The Marx Brothers’ Duck Soup, and a reflection on where the film sits in relation to the rest of the Jim Abrahams catalog.

-Brandon Ledet