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‘Reality Bites’ (PG-13)

By Desson Howe
Washington Post Staff Writer
February 18, 1994

"Reality Bites" sings, jokes and dances to the culture of the so-called post-baby boomers. A romantic triangle among Winona Ryder, Ethan Hawke and Ben Stiller, with quippy references to "Melrose Place" and "Brady Bunch" reruns, it isn't likely to draw the "On Golden Pond" audience.

Or the baby boomers. Or the post-apocalyptic haberdashers.

But if "Reality" is full of twentysomething Esperanto, it's perfectly understandable -- and enjoyable -- to anyone who speaks humor. While its age ceiling seems a little low at times (at least, for this old man), the comedy constantly breaks through. There's a rousing, engaging spirit on the loose, more than emphasized by 32 songs on the soundtrack. This is an MTV-era movie: If you don't get it, as they say of a certain newspaper, you don't get it.

Ryder, a valedictorian college graduate, works at a Houston TV station as production assistant to distasteful talk-show host John Mahoney. But job security is hardly promising to Ryder, who intends to break into public television with a noncommercialized video documentary on her friends.

Ryder's friends, like her, are stuck in an unpromising world of divorcing parents, sitcom reruns and less-than-gainful employment. There's sexually repressed -- but funny -- friend Steve Zahn. There's roommate Janeane Garofalo, a gonzo earth-mother who works at the Gap, hops into bed with everyone and fondly remembers the disco era.

Most significantly, there's Ryder's soul-pal Hawke, an intelligent, aspiring rock musician who acts aloof towards everything from capitalistic society.

"I do not understand why this moment has to be Memorexed," says Mr. Disdainful, as Ryder points the camera at him.

When Stiller, a materialistic video executive (in charge of a pandering youth program called "In Your Face TV"), becomes romantically interested in Ryder and also offers her an outlet for her documentary, she's excited. Hawke becomes sarcastic. When Ryder develops feelings for Stiller, Hawke (too cool to acknowledge his own love for Ryder) becomes downright aggressive.

If this Dudes-et-Jim situation seems familiar, "Reality" works up its own retread originality, with zoomy homage to the age of the camcorder and a clumsily realistic spontaneity among its performers. On a first-time date, Stiller and Ryder establish tentative, common interest in 44-ounce Big Gulp soft drinks. Stiller calls himself a "non-practicing Jew." In sympathetic response, Ryder calls herself a "non-practicing virgin." Stiller says Peter Frampton's ultra-cheesy "Frampton Comes Alive" album changed his life.

Then, trying unsuccessfully to prove he's hip, he blurts out, "I know why the caged bird sings." Caught in his own trap, he stumbles to come up with the answer: "Because he was in a cage or something."

By aiming specifically -- and accurately -- at characters in their twenties, debuting screenwriter Helen Childress and first-time director Stiller (known for his erstwhile Fox comedy show) achieve something even greater: They encapsulate an era.

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