Sentiment and Sneering

Reality Bites is promoted, in print and electronic ads, as a comedy about love in the '90s. It's not about love in the '90s; it's about love, period. The film makes its point with wit, verisimilitude and a healthy mix of sentiment and sneering.

This fine romance is set in Houston, Texas, right about now. The local scenery and inside jokes are swell, but such cheap thrills aren't memorable. Reality Bites evokes the battle with gooey, stupid truths that we all fight, and lose, in youth.

The movie opens with a graduation party on the Shell Plaza roof. Lainie Pierce (Winona Ryder), Troy Dyer (Ethan Hawke), Vickie Miner (Janeane Garofalo) and Sammy Gray (Steve Zahn) have cynical attitudes -- and genuine bitterness -- but a lifetime of television and suburban dysfunction has not destroyed their optimism, or their aspirations. The third man, Michael Grates (Ben Stiller, who also directed), is openly optimistic and ambitious -- in the spirit of Horatio Alger, not Thomas Merton.

Not that Reality Bites has a weighty tone. The movie flows like an old-fashioned romantic comedy with Carole Lombard and Robert Montgomery. This time, the classic triangle has the heroine (Ryder) torn between a good guy and the right man: in this case a high-strung yuppie (Stiller) and a flat-bellied slacker (Hawke). Instead of snappy '40s patter, bickering is all done with television references. The endearing characters charm the audience with play, rather than by appealing to proper, or even -- save me, please -- politically correct romantic rules. When a serious moment comes, it hits home.

Screenwriter and former Houstonian Helen Childress brings the romantic-comedy genre up to date with some new elements. During the best friends' dissin'-men scene, Lainie and Vickie voice the "well, maybe I should be a dyke" lament. Another woman's scene, also set as a singles' coffee klatch in the House of Pies, is the AIDS pep-talk. Vickie, not without reason, is worried about the results of her AIDS test. She describes her fears in televisionese: she feels like she's outside of herself, watching. Worse, as she explains with disgust, "It's like I'm on Melrose Place and I'm the AIDS character and it's all right to talk to me or touch me and then I die and everyone goes to my funeral wearing halter-tops and chokers." Garofalo's reading hits the right notes of raw terror and neurotic introspection. And then Ryder ad-libs, "But, Melrose Place is a really good show.

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