Most people compare this movie to “Singles”, which I finally saw in 2005 I think and really don’t like. I actually liken this movie more to “Fight Club”, both because it resonates in a strange way with my own life experiences and because it bears the same message.
I saw “Reality Bites” right after my 2nd year in college, making me a tad younger than the characters; nonetheless I was exposed to the exact same larger issues (heterosexual AIDS, homosexuality (anyone here remember Coming Out Day 1993?), crappy job market) and I was also fighting for my own sense of identity during a time when there was virtually no positive attention being paid to “my” generation. It also helped that I grew up in east Houston and knew most of the landmarks both physical and cultural. However, it didn’t perfectly jive with my life either: frankly, I grew up too poor to get a free car from the parents, or be able to go to Rice University(!), or purchase a video camera, or even just drive on a whim to downtown Houston to get to the top of a skyscraper. And living in an apartment? Not for another three years. Still, I enjoyed the film at the time and even more so now that I just turned 30. The soundtrack has been in my collection for a long time just for U2, Lisa Loeb, and the Juliana Hatfield Three.
As plenty of people have pointed out, the characters ARE whiny and privileged without realizing it and make plenty of dumb decisions about changing the world. Coming out to your parents — in conservative Houston — before you get a job and established is stupid. Choosing to date the high-IQ slacker rather than the kind-hearted guy moving on up is stupid too, as is sleeping with dozens of people or selling yourself out for both money and whacked-out neurotic chicks. None of these people are ultimately heroes, but that’s why for many of us who are near their demographic they relate so well. The only people I’ve known who are the right age but still really hate this movie are those for whom (to be blunt) it strikes too close to home: super-ambitious business types selling out to their companies and workers with retail McJobs who know they could be so much more but can’t see how to get there.
I think the real point of the movie is the same as “Fight Club”: identity is important but cannot be mediated by your purchases or chosen social markers. We all WANT to be unique individuals and publicly recognized as such, but paradoxically the only way to achieve that goal is to stop searching for it. We all WANT to change the world but will only do so within our usually-quite-small circle of influence. Railing against consumerism while walking the mall is amazingly self-blind.
Stiller and Hawke did an excellent job making this movie just enough in all the right directions. The love triangle — required for a movie to get funding — wasn’t too overdone in the end, all the characters get a lot of screen time, and we get to see in a direct way that friendship really is the only support in their lives. (We also see as in “Threesome” how much such a close circle can cut out those on the outside — Stiller’s character never had a chance without the acceptance of Ryder’s character’s friends.) Everyone gets to display both their weaknesses (such as Ryder’s character trying to alter the TV show she works for) and their strengths (such as Hawke reducing the whole existential angst crap to “5 bucks and a coffee”). It’s not a film I would put on every day; much like “American Beauty” it’s only right for certain moods but nonetheless perfect for those moments.
Finally, I should refer to both “St. Elmo’s Fire” and “Singles”. Neither of those similar-themed movies really get to me, in fact the former I really despise because the characters are even more obliviously privileged and self-centered than those in “Reality Bites”. And “Singles” just seemed too West Coast for me — few people outside Seattle and California really got to see the grunge scene or “sensitive new-age pony-tail guys” in real life. Plus Kyra Sedgwick’s character just grated on my nerves. I mention these because I think they show the one fatal flaw in “Reality Bites”: if you aren’t the right age for this movie, it just won’t feel right.