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‘Reality Bites’ (PG-13)

By Rita Kempley
Washington Post Staff Writer
February 18, 1994

First-time director Ben Stiller, son of the comedy team Stiller and Meara, explores post-collegiate malaise in "Reality Bites," a tender, irreverent romance for a generation reared by "The Brady Bunch" and weaned on Big Gulps. Herein a quartet of precocious new alumni learn, as did boomers before them, that they have to go to work, pick a mate and perhaps turn into their parents.

Though he marries the techie confessionalism of "sex, lies, and videotape" with the restless alienation of "Slacker," Stiller is basically reprising the themes of "The Graduate." Only the watchword for the Class of '94 isn't plastics, it's retail. The best they can hope for is "a toehold in the burger industry" or a managerial position at the Gap.

Of the movie's four protagonists, only Lelaina (Winona Ryder) has a job in keeping with her dreams of making TV documentaries. She's a frustrated production assistant to the pompous host (John Mahoney) of a smarmy Houston talk show, "Good Morning, Grant!" To fulfill her creative urge, she is making a scruffy documentary about her acerbic and smugly self-conscious circle of friends.

After she is fired for tampering with her boss's cue cards, Lelaina runs into Michael (Stiller), an executive for an MTV-type network called In Your Face. This gives Stiller the director a chance to parody MTV programming while Stiller the actor delivers a surprisingly endearing performance. Michael is far from a smooth-talking corporate weasel -- his body language practically apologizes for his success on the job.

When his interest in her becomes more personal than professional, it spurs Lelaina's lifelong friend, Troy (Ethan Hawke of "Dead Poets Society"), to choose between showing his love for Lelaina and maintaining his slacker pose. A part-time grunge vocalist, Troy is cynical, and it is his cynicism that makes him more appealing to Lelaina, who for all her post-feminist sass is just a fair maiden falling for the wrong prince.

Michael, yuppie scum in Troy's way of thinking, is actually the better catch, but the plot, like love stories immemorial, bends to the perennial allure of the sexy bad boy. Written by a 24-year-old Houstonian, Helen Childress, the story may not be new, but it is as fresh as the film's new faces. Janeane Garofalo, who was featured on Stiller's short-lived Fox TV show, is a hip treasure as Vickie, a Gap saleswoman and buff of '70s culture.

Primarily a sounding board for Lelaina, Vickie has her own era-specific crisis: One of her many lovers is HIV-positive and she's nervously awaiting the results of her AIDS test. Certain that she's contracted the disease, she dreams she's a new character on "Melrose Place," the one dying of AIDS. Everybody's really nice, but they all show up at her funeral in halter tops. In a sincere effort to console her friend, Lelaina notes, " 'Melrose Place' is a really good show."

"Reality Bites" principally turns on the romantic tension between Ryder, wonderfully radiant and not all that literate for the class valedictorian her character is purported to be, and Hawke, who does the alienated-poet thing better than anybody since Matt Dillon's greaser in "The Outsiders." Not that there's much difference between grunge and grease, hip and beat. We've all been there -- or will be -- and that's the real thing, baby.

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