‘Reality Bites’ vs. ‘Singles’: Which ’90s Comedy Is the Quintessential Gen-X Film?

There are two groundbreaking early-’90s movies that defined Gen X’s sensibilities, but which is the generation’s seminal romantic comedy? On the one hand, there’s Cameron Crowe’s Singles: released in 1992 to moderate success, the film followed a group of single people in Seattle set against the burgeoning grunge movement (Eddie Vedder and Chris Cornell both turn up in cameo roles). Then there’s Reality Bites: Ben Stiller directorial debut, which premiered 20 years ago this week, offers a love triangle between three young Houstonites featuring quintessential ’90s icon Winona Ryder at the center. (It also includes some recognizable cameos: Dave Pirner and Evan Dando play bit parts, as do Andy Dick and David Spade). In commemoration of the latter’s anniversary, I asked my friend and freelance writer Ryan Creed to join me in a very important cinematic debate: which is better, Singles or Reality Bites?

Tyler Coates: So, I am full-on Team Reality Bites, especially after watching both movies last week. I’ll admit that I’m biased because I essentially watched Reality Bites every day for about six months when I was in middle school and was obsessed with the dialogue, the references, the soundtrack, and Janeane Garofalo. The first time I saw Singles was in college, and I didn’t like it; I watched it a few years ago after I started listening to a lot of the Replacements and was able to enjoy it. But watching it alongside Reality Bites last week, Singles feels so much lighter — it’s a broadly comic film about romance that doesn’t feel as timeless in its very ’90s-ness the way Reality Bites does. FIGHT ME, RYAN.

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Ryan Creed: Tyler, your bravado is embarrassing. Reality Bites and Singles are the undisputed titans of early-’90s cinema — an era which began with Pump Up The Volume in 1990 and ended with Empire Records in 1995 – but which is the better movie and which is the most ’90s movie are very different questions to answer.

You’re right that Singles is not the more ’90s movie of the two, because it is so much of the ’90s. Cameron Crowe’s Singles is a rare film that unknowingly captured an era’s zeitgeist: it was conceived before the Seattle hype took over modern rock radio, and even Eddie Vedder and Jeff Ament’s cameos were made when Pearl Jam was still called Mookie Blaylock. The flannel, the goatees, the espresso beans, Screaming Trees — none of these grunge staples had yet to filter up into Perry Ellis ads and The Real World. When they’re removed, you have a universal movie about the desperation, struggles, and compromises surrounding adult romance. Re-watching Singles now, it’s almost shocking that my teenage self revered a movie with such adult themes, when now I relate so closely to Linda’s (Kyra Sedgwick) fears of intimacy, Janet’s (Bridget Fonda) “God Bless You” dating requirement, and Debbie’s (Whatshername) “Expect the Best” video.

Singles’ themes are timeless; what isn’t timeless is a reference to The Brady Brunch and Good Times. The time capsule feeling of Reality Bites is jarring when viewed from today’s world of the internet, helicopter parents, and gay equality. It feels less like a movie, and more a product targeted to corporate America’s idea of Generation X. When you watch it, you can almost see the checklist of clichés that the movie studio required director Ben Stiller to include: thrift store clothes, The Gap, an HIV scare, lots of talk about divorce, pop culture references, A DAVE PIRNER CAMEO. When you remove these elements, you’re left with a thin plot about a woman in love with Ethan Hawke. Need I say more?

But why did you connect to Janeane Garofalo: Was Vickie Miner the ’90s quintessential hag? Would it matter if Gwyneth Paltrow was cast instead, like the studio wanted? I also want to know what you think about the romances in both movies. Who will be happier in ten years, Lelaina and Troy or Janet and Cliff?

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TC: Good points: Singles is much more of a good romantic comedy, but I wouldn’t say it defined the era or even any era as much as it used the Seattle / budding grunge movement as a peg to place the enduring problems of dating and relationships into a specific moment. Reality Bites is a lesser romantic comedy in that sense — the love triangle seems more like some major studio exec’s idea of how to make a movie relatable.

I’ve always said that Reality Bites‘ major flaw is the love triangle. Should Lelaina end up with the successful corporate exec Michael Grates, who by all accounts has a good career but also suffers from, well, general stupidity and a boring personality? Or should she follow her heart and end up with Troy Dyer, an underemployed college dropout with musical talent? He’s certainly smarter and more creative than Michael; does ending up with him make her less of a sellout? The fact is that I don’t believe they were meant for each other — if anything, it’s a sad thing that Sammy was gay, because he’s the best male character in the film. (Maybe that’s not a coincidence!) As an adult, I’ve watched the film with the understanding that no one has his or her life settled by 23. I can’t imagine Lelaina and Troy lasted long after the credits rolled, which is totally fine. How many of us ended up, in our 30s, with the first boyfriend or girlfriend we had in our confusing post-graduate years? That’s not to say, however, that those first relationships didn’t facilitate some kind of maturation, and I think Lelaina was just one step closer to figuring out what she wanted in the long run when she ended up with Troy instead of Michael: they had a shared sensibility, which was that a creative pursuit was more important than this broad idea of selling out.

That’s what’s always interested me about Reality Bites: we see what these people are doing outside of their personal relationships. I say that with the caveat that Sammy is an underdeveloped character. Lelaina begins the film with a shitty entry-level job in television and has dreams of making a documentary on her own time. Troy cares less about his day job than he does his music career. Even Vickie knows that being a manager at The Gap is not The Dream, but it works for her: it’s a good job, she likes it fine, and it gives her the money and time to pursue her own dreams. (Again, who knows what those dreams are? There’s only so much space you can give a secondary character in a 90-minute comedy.)

Singles, on the other hand, is less defined. Steve and Linda both have public official-type jobs; we actually get a sense that Steve cares about his work, even though Linda’s job is never really fleshed out. Janet is a barista (very ’90s!), while Cliff, like Troy, is a musician (although he’s nowhere near as smart as Troy). We have a good idea of what Steve, Linda, and Janet strive for when it comes to personal relationships, whereas Cliff is more of a sketch of a character: he’s the cool, attractive aspiring rock star we all want to fuck and change into the perfect boyfriend, although you can tell that he’s never really going to achieve what the personality traits we (by which I mean, Janet) want him to maintain. Instead, he’s kind of a doofus; we don’t really get why Janet likes him at all, other than the characteristics I’ve described.

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RC: Tyler, you’re wigging. It’s true, as Troy says, “All you have to be by the age of 23 is yourself,” but the only thing we learn about the characters in Reality Bites is that their collective maturity is stunted by perceived parental trauma: Lelaina from her divorced parents, Troy from his sick father, Sammy from his possibly close-minded mother, and Vickie from her parents going to the bathroom with the door open. Maybe this parental theme is why teenagers in the ‘90s loved the movie, and why people who were actually 23 years old and older were rolling their eyes.

Let’s look at the other 23-year-old woman, Janet in Singles, whose introductory monologue still haunts me: “I think time is running out to do something bizarre. Somewhere around 25 bizarre becomes immature.” Both Lelaina and Janet end up with the wrong guy, but their journeys are different. Lelaina’s path to Mr. Wrong is littered with narcissism, neediness, and puppy love. Lelaina and Troy will not find eternal happiness, not because they’re 23, but because their relationship hinges on Troy being someone he isn’t and Lelaina still not knowing who she is.

Janet begins Singles as a nice girl from the Plains who is deluding herself into thinking a local rock star, Cliff, loves her. So much so that she’s willing to accept philandering and undergo plastic surgery to keep him interested. But then the feminist switch goes off: she wants to be loved for who she is. She finds value in herself and dignity in being alone. She even starts reading The Fountainhead, a beginning step to eventual architecture school. When she accepts Cliff back when he says “God bless you” when she sneezes after previously ignoring her, you may not be convinced that Cliff has evolved, but you are confident that she is entering the relationship with Mr. Wrong on her own terms and will leave it on her own terms.

There is still so much we haven’t discussed: Which movie has the better soundtrack? Is Tim Burton the next “Martin Scorseeze”? And would you watch In Your Face TV (I would!)?

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TC: Ryan, what is your GLITCH? First of all, I get that people beyond their early 20s might not relate to Reality Bites. Janeane Garofalo herself admitted that she didn’t “get” it when she filmed it (she was 29 at the time). But I think of it in the same way that I think about Girls — is anyone who watches that show relating to it? I mean, beyond young people living in urban environments who are struggling with their entry-level positions in the Real World. But I’d argue that Reality Bites was one of the first cultural properties to nail that aimlessness, that confusion that comes out of the seemingly sudden vast opportunities that generation had. These characters’ lives felt dramatically different than the lives of their parents, which is why the children of the baby boomers freaked out so hard about how to get their shit together.

But let’s talk about how these movies are FILMED, Ryan. I’m putting my foot down and saying that without a doubt Reality Bites is a greater technical achievement. It’s beautifully shot by Emmanuel Lubeski (currently nominated for his fifth Oscar for his work on Gravity) and features some great direction on Ben Stiller’s part. Singles feels so sloppy in comparison, with its episodic structure, the fourth-wall breaking, the overly broad humor. Also, I don’t care how many Mudhoney shirts Campbell Scott wears, there is no way that he would be meeting Kyra Sedgewick at a Citizen Dick show. (Even the fake band’s name in Singles is far inferior to Hey That’s My Bike!)

Also, are we supposed to believe that these people are all friends with each other because they live in the same building? I have never, ever spoken to a neighbor since I graduated from college. Maybe they’re just friendlier in Seattle? Also, I think it’s interesting that you bring up Janet reading The Fountainhead. What’s with the weird Ayn Randian nature of Singles? Architects! Trains! I think Cameron Crowe might have been trying to sneak in some Objectivism here, and I DO NOT LIKE IT. Also, I could not help guffawing at the Tim Burton cameo, because, like Cameron Crowe, he’s a director who showed some early, if sloppy, promise, and then turned out to be kind of a lame filmmaker. (Also, no one has ever pronounced Scorsese “Scorseeze,” c’mon.)

The soundtracks are major topics, and I’ll let you start on that one. But I will admit that, yes, I would totally watch In Your Face TV. Another burning question: why were newsstands so big in the ’90s?! (RIP, print.)

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RC: Do you remember how you told me to tell you when you were being plastic? Well, you’re being plastic. Reality Bites definitely taps into the baby boomer fears that Gen-Xers were apathetic, had no work ethic, and would be less successful than their parents. But that wasn’t ultimately the reality of Reality Bites: Lelaina had a good entry-level job that she left ignominiously; Troy was fired for stealing; Vickie was making $400 a week at The Gap; and Michael’s character didn’t graduate college but still managed to land a job at In Your Face TV. The only career lesson we learned is that a college graduate should know the definition of irony and how to do simple arithmetic for those Wiener Dudes.

I will respectfully bow out of the discussion of which movie is better filmed: both clock in at 99 minutes, but for me, only one felt at least twice as long. I hope we can both agree that Lelaina is a terrible filmmaker, and she should be happy that In Your Face TV made her footage sing.

Finally, the soundtracks. It’s hard to not hear the opening baseline of Alice in Chains’ “Would” without thinking that the Singles soundtrack is the definitive sound of the era. When I recently visited Seattle and drove by the actual Singles apartment building, I played the soundtrack and actually broke through the space-time continuum as Seattle icons Ann and Nancy Wilson sang the “Battle of Evermore.” Do I care that Paul Westerberg’s “Dyslexic Heart” and “Waiting for Somebody” are basically the same song? Not even a little.

Presumably, listening to the Reality Bites soundtrack in Houston, Texas, doesn’t transport the listener back to 1994. That said, the Reality Bites soundtrack does prove that grunge did not rule the ‘90s. There was pop. There was “My Sharona,” by one of Kurt Cobain’s favorite bands, there was Juliana Hatfield spinning the bottle (and whose ex Evan Dando makes a brief cameo), and there were the Violent Femmes, who still ruled college radio despite the fact that Add It Up was released in 1983 (Just look at Angela Chase’s bedroom dance in My So-Called Life.) The glory of Lisa Loeb’s “Stay” may be negated by Big Mountain’s cover of “Baby, I Love Your Way,” but hey, Peter Frampton did appear in the Lollapalooza episode of The Simpsons.

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TC: Ryan, you’re so cheesy I can’t watch you without crackers. Now, who among us didn’t produce terrible “art” when we were 23? It’s why I don’t look at my old blog archives, and also why I can forgive Lelaina for basically fucking around with a camcorder. And at the very least, Vickie got out of college with the ability to memorize her social security number!

The one thing I think Singles has going for it is its soundtrack. While I like to tell everyone that the Reality Bites soundtrack was the first CD I ever purchased (a boldfaced lie to hide my true shame!), it hasn’t really held up very well. Every good song by Lisa Loeb, The Knack, or Crowded House is negated by a shitty song by some forgotten ’90s band (or Lenny Kravitz!). The Singles soundtrack, on the other hand, is more focused on a time and place: Seattle in 1992. I will say, though, that I’m so glad grunge didn’t really stay that big. I don’t think I’d enjoy dancing to Chris Cornell.

But no scene in Singles can compare to the group of friends in Reality Bites dancing to the Knack’s “My Sharona.” And say what you will about Ethan Hawke’s singing voice: at least he had the balls to sing! (I’m looking at you, Matt Dillon.)

Ryan, I’m afraid that there’s just no way of changing each other’s minds! It appears that some folks are Singles people and others are Reality Bites people. Luckily, we can still get along, because there’s no point to any of this. It’s all just a random lottery of meaningless tragedy and a series of near escapes. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m late for a jean-folding seminar.