The funniest moment in Reality Bites is when the two males of the love triangle face off in a verbal duel from across the room. They're not at each other's throats physically (it would be out of character for both) but their dialogue is made of quick jabs, seeking to disarm and expose. One's lounging on the couch with snacks and the other is standing in a suit. Michael makes a half-hearted compliment about the nature of their experiences caught on camera; it's good, authentic stuff, ready for corporate jocks like him to swoop in and package it all up for commercial TV (the irony is lost on him). A particular one-liner uttered by an unemployed post-graduate just before shoving a dozen eggs into his mouth astounds him - for a television executive it's a veritable goldmine of wit and lunacy all rolled into one. What he doesn't know is that it's lampooning an iconic scene from Cool Hand Luke. Michael is shell-shocked. How could he be so out of touch? The film has been pushing the two as polar opposites, and he could not be more emblematic of the outside threat posed to the group, seeking to gobble up and regurgitate their precious memories of 'living' (Stiller, uncoincidentally, is a little older than them, straddling the line of Baby Boomer exclusion). But here in this moment the film reveals how phony these pursuits are, how unauthentic their authenticity is.
Unsurprising, Stiller stacks the odds against his own character. Michael doesn't have an original bone in his body, much to the chagrin of Troy's soulful 'live-in-the-moment' philosophy characterised by his vague ramblings and wisps of facial hair. He's not a jerk, only that he would praise Lelaina whether she came out in a dress or a burlap sack, and that isn't what she needs. The film prefers Hawke, who isn't scared to voice his angst in grungy rock performances, who became a poster child for the fresh-faced Gen X. In Linklater's Before Sunrise, he played this part to perfection. That film gently and gradually unveiled, over a night of posturing, wide-eyed philosophising and stalling, that maybe in some exceptional circumstances meet cutes could become something much more. But here he's grating and empty, and doesn't offer a whole lot beyond his gravelly solos and condemnations - when he defiantly challenges Michael with "You don't know what she needs", it's so easy to pick apart this grand, sweeping notion. The other two freeloaders of the group are similarly hollow, less friends and more vague social markers for the 90s zeitgeist: coming out, the AIDS epidemic, an aspiring career as manager at The Gap. Sammy prances and practices his confession to his parents, but remains steadfastly in the closet, so ironically it's performance that Lelaina's camera captures. And as Vickie tearfully opens up on her fears of the test result, Lelaina tightly grips her hands and offers comforting words, before they pause and consider how this struggle might be framed through the lens of Melrose Place.
But there at least they have the self awareness to laugh at themselves. It's a little harder to discern when bright-eyed valedictorian Lelaina is so adamant that because she worked hard on her tapes, and because they have spirit and credibility, that her clumsy, hand-held verite style amounts to much more than a bunch selectively based moments of equal wit and stupidity. When she storms out of the first showing of her work being butchered by the network, is she simply angry or is she also embarrassed at having the vacuity of her life blasted back at her, only in a format that she is preordained to fight and rally against? Lelaina seems to be more complex than her peers, if only for not being immediately shackled by poorly cut bangs or a head of greasy, unkempt, 'rocker' hair. We can tell that she's been promised starry dreams and life-changing success in return for good grades, only to be thrust into the same cold, uncaring world as the rest of her generation and told to wait in line. Lelaina can't wait to change the world for good, but paradoxically makes an art of living on the couch and racking up monstrous phone bills in the name of 'authentic' emotional connections. She's witty enough to proclaim that the cultural touchstone of her life is a Big Gulps cup, and smart enough to laugh at herself for this, but not so much so that she realises the establishment she longs to break free from has ultimately shaped the void in her life. She doesn't have the answers to her speech, but she's too afraid to admit this and overcompensates instead, with chirpy, ironic quips, trying to push aside the fact that there are many honest jobs at 7-Eleven and that she could really do with the money.
Where the film really falls is waving away this generational angst and framing it as a love story instead. Lelaina may be furious at having her 'art' compromised, but the fallout plays out like a romantic comedy, filtering her conflicted emotions through the guise of relationship breakdown. It's here where Stiller's inexperience really shows, and how he resorts to amateurish and cliché conventions: the stirring twangs of the guitar, the nauseating closeups, the way the camera spirals over the forlorn figure resigned to staying in bed. These also demonstrate how dated the film is - smoking used to be cool, once even a characteristic of tone. Now we don't even do the thing where you solemnly call and stay silent as the object of your affection picks up, we'd just text. At its best, Reality Bites is comforting, and at its worst it's naive, in a harmless, giggly sort of way. In the beginning, Lelaina shrugs off a new car and gas card from her parents. These days, there are endless numbers of college graduates that would die for that luxury.