The film's critical reception was mixed, but it was successful commercially, grossing $20 million in the United States on an $11 million budget. Critics highlighted the performances of Ryder, Hawke and Garofalo in particular. However, it has since achieved cult status and has been singled out as one of the films that captured the zeitgeist of the early 1990s grunge scene among 20-somethings, while also bringing attention to various issues that plagued young Americans at the time.
Four friends who recently graduated from college live together in Houston, Texas. Coffee-house guitarist Troy Dyer and budding filmmaker Lelaina Pierce are attracted to each other, although they have not acted on their feelings except for one brief, drunken encounter. Troy is floundering, having lost several minimum wage jobs—the last of which he loses early in the film for stealing a candy bar from his employer. Lelaina was valedictorian of her university and has aspirations to become a documentarian, although initially having to settle for a position as production assistant to a rude and obnoxious TV host.
Lelaina meets Michael Grates when she throws a cigarette into his convertible, causing him to crash into her car. The two soon begin to date. He works at an MTV-like cable channel called "In Your Face" as an executive, and after learning about a documentary she's been working on, wants to get it aired on his network.
Lelaina's roommate Vickie has a series of one-night stands and short relationships with dozens of guys; her promiscuity leads her to confront a very-real risk of contracting HIV after a former fling tests positive for the virus. Vickie works as a sales associate for The Gap, and is later promoted to manager and seems content with her new job. Her friend Sammy Gray is gay; he remains celibate, not because of a fear of AIDS, but because forming a relationship would force him to come out to his conservative parents.
After an impulsive act of retribution, Lelaina loses her job, which causes some tension with her roommates. Eventually, Vickie's AIDS test comes back negative and Sammy comes out to his parents (and he even starts dating) and the two manage to resume their lives.
Meanwhile, Lelaina's relationship with Michael dissolves after he helps her sell the documentary to his network, only to let them edit it into a stylized montage that she feels compromises her artistic vision. Lelaina and Troy then sleep together and confess their love. The morning after, he avoids her, and after a messy confrontation, leaves town. After Troy's father dies, he forces himself to reevaluate his life, deciding to attempt a relationship with Lelaina.
Troy and Lelaina reunite and make amends after Troy returns from his father's funeral in Chicago. While we do not see what happens to Michael, during the credits there is an abrupt break where two characters, "Laina" and "Roy", who are obvious parodies of Lelaina and Troy, have an argument about their relationship. As the "show's" credits roll, Michael's name is revealed as the producer, implying that he has turned the failed relationship into the subject of a new show on his network.Winona Ryder as Lelaina Pierce
Ethan Hawke as Troy Dyer
Ben Stiller as Michael Grates
Janeane Garofalo as Vickie Miner
Swoosie Kurtz as Charlane McGregor
Joe Don Baker as Tom Pierce
John Mahoney as Grant Gubler
Steve Zahn as Sammy Gray
Renée Zellweger as Tami
Andy Dick as Rock
Keith David as Roger
Pat Crawford Brown as a Cashier
David Spade (uncredited) as a Hot Dog Manager
Anthony Robbins (uncredited) as Himself
Jeanne Tripplehorn (uncredited) as Cheryl Goode "In Your Face TV" correspondent
In 1991, producer Michael Shamberg had an idea to make a film about people in their twenties. He had read a screenplay entitled Blue Bayou, written by Helen Childress on spec in 1990. He liked it and met with her, and she proceeded to tell him about her life and friends, and their struggle to find work during a recession in the United States at the time. For three years, she wrote and rewrote Reality Bites, generating 70 different drafts. Childress decided to use her friends, their personalities and experiences as the basis for her film.
The film's producers saw the pilot episode for The Ben Stiller Show and approached Stiller to direct it, but not act in it. He signed on to direct in 1992 and worked with Childress for nine to ten months developing the script. Initially, Childress, working with producer Stacey Sher, had figured out the characters of Lelaina and Troy, but could not come up with a credible character to complete the love triangle. Stiller suggested that he could play that third person. As a result, the Michael character changed from a 35-year-old advertising executive trying to market Japanese candy bars in America to a television executive in his twenties. They also changed the structure of the film. Originally, Vickie, Sammy and Troy had more fleshed out storylines, but Stiller felt that he could not tell them fully and decided to focus on the relationship between Lelaina and Troy.
By December 1992, Childress and Stiller had a script that was ready to be filmed for TriStar Pictures, but the studio put it into turnaround. Sher, Stiller and Childress managed to convince the Film Commission of Texas to fund a location scouting trip to Houston, despite no studio backing, no budget and no cast. The film had been turned down by all Hollywood studios because it tried to capture the Generation X market like Singles, which was not a box office success. When Sher, Stiller and Childress arrived in Houston, they received a phone call informing them that Winona Ryder had read the script, wanted to do it and that Universal Pictures had agreed to finance the film.
After completing several period pieces, Ryder was drawn to Reality Bites because she was looking "for something a little more contemporary because I really wanted to wear blue jeans for a change". She read the script in one sitting while making The House of the Spirits and "found it very true to life." She further speculated in an interview, "I think my character is very close to what I would probably have ended up as if I hadn't become an actress". Ethan Hawke was at this point unhappy with the direction his career was taking; the actor recalled that his career was in a lull after the buzz from Dead Poets Society had faded. Ryder was a fan of his work and stipulated in her contract that her involvement in the film was dependent on Hawke starring opposite her.
Janeane Garofalo knew Stiller from working together on The Ben Stiller Show, and the film's producers felt that her style of comedy was perfect for the character of Vickie. She said that Parker Posey, Anne Heche, and Gwyneth Paltrow were all up for the role. The studio wanted Paltrow, but Ryder supported Garofalo for the role after making a connection with her. Before filming began, Garofalo was fired from the production because Stiller did not like her attitude during rehearsal. Garofalo was rehired after Ryder stepped in on her behalf. Garofalo stated later that she has a really poor work ethic and hates to rehearse. Stiller met Steve Zahn through Hawke, with whom Zahn was starring in a play, and he was impressed by how funny Zahn was. The actor went to Los Angeles, California, and tested for the film. He felt strongly about playing a gay character coming out of the closet.
Principal photography lasted 42 days, on a budget of $11.5 million. The filmmakers shot many of the exteriors in Houston (including a scene on top of the Two Shell Plaza building), where the film is set, but most of the interiors were shot in Los Angeles, because it was cheaper to do so there. During filming, Stiller encouraged Childress to be on location and talk with the actors about their characters.
RCA met with the film's music supervisor Karyn Rachtman, and Stiller, three weeks into filming, to discuss the soundtrack album. They finalized a deal and the label opened its roster to the director, who picked only one band: Me Phi Me. RCA aggressively marketed the album and had five tracks on rotation on radio and MTV. The video for Crowded House's "Locked Out" was updated to include footage from the film. In addition, the video for "Spin the Bottle" by the Juliana Hatfield Three was directed by Stiller and featured clips from the film as well. The soundtrack sold 1.2 million units and reached #13 on the Billboard 200. The album also earned a no. 1 single with Lisa Loeb's "Stay (I Missed You)".
The film's soundtrack includes songs by World Party, Squeeze, The Knack (a remixed version of "My Sharona" featured prominently in one scene from the film), Juliana Hatfield, Social Distortion, and two contributions from Crowded House ("Locked Out" and "Something So Strong"), in addition to the runaway hit "Stay (I Missed You)" by Lisa Loeb, which earned Loeb the distinction of being the first artist to top the Hot 100 before being signed to any record label. It also includes "Conjunction Junction" from Schoolhouse Rock!, another song brought into the foreground of a film full of pop culture references.
10th Anniversary Edition bonus tracks
- "My Sharona" – The Knack
- "Spin the Bottle" – Juliana Hatfield Three
- "Bed of Roses" – The Indians
- "When You Come Back to Me" – World Party
- "Going, Going, Gone" – The Posies
- "Stay (I Missed You)" – Lisa Loeb & Nine Stories
- "All I Want Is You" – U2
- "Locked Out" – Crowded House
- "Spinning Around Over You" – Lenny Kravitz
- "I'm Nuthin'" – Ethan Hawke
- "Turnip Farm" – Dinosaur Jr.
- "Revival!" – Me Phi Me
- "Tempted" – Squeeze
- "Baby, I Love Your Way" – Big Mountain
- "Stay (I Missed You)" (Living Room mix) – Lisa Loeb
- "Add It Up" – Ethan Hawke (Violent Femmes cover)
- "Confusion" – New Order
- "Disco Inferno" – The Trammps
- "Give a Man a Fish" – Arrested Development
- "Fools Like Me" – Lisa Loeb
Reality Bites went through four test screenings with a fairly decent reaction, before it premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in January 1994, and was theatrically released in the United States on February 18, 1994.
The film grossed $5.1 million in 1,149 theaters on its opening weekend. Initially, Reality Bites did not perform as well at the box office as the studio had hoped. In six weeks, it grossed $18.3 million, more than the film's $11 million production budget. Bruce Feldman, Universal Pictures' Vice President of Marketing, said, "The media labeled it as a Generation X picture, while we thought it was a comedy with broad appeal". The studio placed advertisements during programs chosen for their appeal to 12- to 34-year-olds, and in interviews Stiller was careful not to mention the phrase, "Generation X". The film went on to be a moderate hit for Universal and make $20.9 million in North America and $12.3 million internationally, for a worldwide total of $33.3 million.
The film received mixed reviews. Rotten Tomatoes gives the film a score of 65% based on reviews from 52 critics.
Caryn James, in her review for The New York Times wrote, "Like the generation it presents so appealingly, it doesn't see any point in getting all bent out of shape and overambitious. But it knows how to hang out and have a great time". In his review for The Washington Post, Desson Howe wrote, "By aiming specifically—and accurately—at characters in their twenties, debuting screenwriter Helen Childress and first-time director Stiller achieve something even greater: they encapsulate an era". Time magazine's Richard Schickel wrote, "the movie bobs along on this stream of funny offhandedness, never losing its balance. If it's 10 o'clock, and you want to know where your supposedly grownup children are, this is a good place to look for them".
When asked in 2007 how well Reality Bites had aged, Janeane Garofalo replied, "I think it means a lot more to people younger than me. I was not the target audience. I was 29 playing a 21-year-old, so I don't think I understand why younger people like it."
In 2013, Stiller proposed a television series sequel.
The film is recognized by American Film Institute in these lists:2002: AFI's 100 Years...100 Passions – Nominated
In 2005, the real Dyer (a film financier) sued writer Childress, producer DeVito, and director Stiller. Dyer claimed that after the 2004 release of the 10th anniversary DVD, in which screenwriter Childress stated on audio commentary tracks that she wrote the story based on her actual college friends and roommates, he was forced to deal with past and potential clients' "inquiries as to whether he was the fictional character". The defendants attempted to seek shelter under California's anti-SLAPP statutes, but in early 2007 the appeals court denied them SLAPP protection. The suit was quickly settled after Dyer received a written document from Childress stating he was not the person portrayed in the film.