Singles vs. Reality Bites: Which Quintessential Gen X Flick Best Represents ’90s Angst?
Hello, hello, hello, how low.
A list of recently resurrected ‘90s pop culture obsessions: Roseanne, Trainspotting, Twin Peaks, Full House, Baywatch, IT, Will & Grace, Hanson, Toy Story, Nicole Kidman.
What’s not and will never be on that list: Two wonderfully dated movies that smell like Gen X teen spirit.
Singles and Reality Bites. Cameron Crowe’s 1992 comedy about neighbors searching for identity and Ben Stiller’s 1994 comedy about roommates searching for identity. Just stick these artifacts in a time capsule along with that Blind Melon CD and bury them forever. Nobody wants to see Bridget Fonda and Matt Dillon with mortgages and grey hair or Bella Thorne in the part of acidic Janeane Garofalo.
Both films represented the era of early ‘90s angst so accurately that they can never ever be replicated or rebooted. (In fact, I’m pretty positive that Gen Xers — the hard-working, dues-paying, middle-child group of people sandwiched in between Baby Boomers and Millennials — invented the word angst.) But which movie wins the golden flannel? In honor of Singles‘ 25th anniversary year, MaraMovies examines the evidence. We grew up without Google. We can do this.
Tragically Hip Backdrop
Singles – Seattle
Reality Bites — Austin
Crowe, a Seattle resident at the time, set his movie at the epicenter of all things Gen X. Give Reality Bites a mosh pit cheer for delving deep in the heart of Texas way before South by Southwest, but this is as sure as a rainy day in Washington.
Singles – Cliff (Matt Dillon)
Reality Bites – Troy (Ethan Hawke)
A toughie. Cliff, the man of four jobs and one long glorious mane of hair, is the proud frontman for Citizen Dick — the man is so rockin’ that Eddie Vedder plays drums in the band. He’s not so eloquent with the words, though. And he takes forever to come around and appreciate the greatness that is Janet (Bridget Fonda). Is it so hard to say “bless you” after a sneeze, dude? Face it, she and her undersized breasts can do better. Hawke’s Troy pours his soul into his own band, Hey That’s My Bike. And he’s got smarts: Though fired from a newsstand, he can rattle off the dictionary definition of “irony” in a blink. Fine, he sneers at Lelaina’s choice in dating a yuppie (Stiller). It’s just a defense mechanism. He loves her. He broods because he cares. Swoon.
Winner: Reality Bites
Singles – Linda Powell (Kyra Sedgwick)
Reality Bites – Lelaina Pierce (Winona Ryder)
What I love most about Linda is that she plays hard to get with Campbell Scott’s Steve — he says and does all the right things and yet she still blows him off because he waited four days to call after the first date. She doesn’t want games. She doesn’t want drama. She wants love and she gets it. But I can’t deny the original manic-pixie dream girl, Winona friggin’ Ryder. Her Lelaina has the balls to humiliate her condescending boss on live TV. She films her friends’ confessionals before every reality TV show used the same gimmick. And she knew that in its heyday, Melrose Place was a really good show. No wonder two guys on opposite sides of the hipster spectrum fall for her.
Winner: Reality Bites
Soundtrack High Notes
Singles — “Breath” Pearl Jam; “Birth Ritual” Soundgarden; “Would?” Alice in Chains; “Dyslexic Heart” Paul Westerberg; “Nearly Lost You” Screaming Trees
Reality Bites – “Stay” Lisa Loeb; “Baby, I Love Your Way” Big Mountain; “Spinning Around Over You” Lenny Kravitz; “My Sharona” The Knack
Winner: Singles. Cameron Crowe curated a soundtrack that epitomizes the early ’90s alt-music scene, featuring a who’s-who of Seattle grunge. (Chris Cornell’s “Seasons” has become more timely after his death last month.) No hit singles, but I’m not convinced, say, Jane’s Addiction or its fans cares about that. Reality Bites is more of a mish-mash of classic hits, including The Knack’s “My Sharona” and a re-recorded version of Squeeze’s “Tempted.” Also, Reality Bites gets an automatic disqualification for including that god-awful white-reggae cover of Peter Frampton’s classic “Baby, I Love Your Way.” That’s one small embarrassing step above from Snow’s “Informer.” Still love you and your glasses, Lisa Loeb!
Grunge God Cameo
Singles – Eddie Vedder, Jeff Ament, Stone Gossard, Chris Cornell, Alice in Chains
Reality Bites – Dave Pirner
Ryder dated the Soul Asylum singer during filming, which explains his random appearance on Janeane Garofalo’s bed during one of her confessionals. Shockingly, this romance did not last. Crowe, the former Rolling Stone journalist, had an Almost Famous-esque connection with the Seattle grunge scene and included the major players to various amusing effect. (See: Vedder’s fixation with watching bees on a nature show, above.) This friendship continues — Crowe recently directed Pearl Jam’s 20th anniversary documentary.
Vintage Pop Culture Refs
Singles — Father Knows Best, Xavier McDaniel, Martin Scorsese
Reality Bites – Good Times, Schoolhouse Rock, Cool Hand Luke, “Disco Inferno,” The Brady Bunch
Duh, you can’t receive your Gen X membership card unless you can easily slip The Brady Bunch into regular conversation and recite one Schoolhouse Rock song. It’s a damn shame Crowe — a baby boomer already in his mid-30s during Singles‘ release — did not realize this deal-breaker.
The (Gen) X-Factor
Even the biggest ’90s slacker would agree that emotional investment in the characters is crucial. And though the Singles crew endears, they pass in and out of their vignettes too effortlessly. I love Steve and Linda’s breakup and makeup. It makes me crazy every time Crowe rudely cuts them off to show Sheila Kelley’s man-crazy Debbie Hunt’s silly adventures in love. Lelaina and Troy, meanwhile, build up all their insecurities and confusion into one night of passion — only to throw it all away after Hawke croons “I’m Nuthin.’” Nuthin’ in Singles compares to the star couple individually staring deeply into the abyss and smoking cigarettes to the soaring strains of U2’s “All I Want is You.” That song, by the way, is from 1988. Talk about irony. Winner!!! Reality Bites.
(Singles is available to stream on HBO; Reality Bites is available on iTunes and Amazon)
Also published on Medium.