Romancing The Stoned

THE DANGER OF MOVIES THAT TRY TO define a generation is that they almost have to turn out . . . generic. Baby boomers can remember with a shudder all those psychedelicized, lets-try-and-be-hip Hollywood "youthquake" movies in the late '60s. Now we're on the brink of a slew of Generation X movies. (You could hear the media's sigh of relief when they found this moniker: so that's who these kids are!) Xers have every right to be cynical about Hollywood's motives in merchandising their twentysomething angst for mainstream delectation.

All of which is to explain why one may approach the twentysomething comedy Reality Bites with some suspicion. All the X tropes are in place -- broken families, the disillusioned world of one Mcjob after another, the slacker response, the fetishizing of '70s TV culture. But director Ben Stiller's confident first film, written by 23 year-old Helen Childress, never makes the mistake of taking itself too seriously. A witty and sweet-natured romantic comedy, it conjures up an amorous triangle whose appeal shouldn't be limited to fans of Pearl jam. Irene Dunne faced the same dilemma back in the '30s that Winona Ryder does here: which guy deserves her heart?

Lelaina (Ryder), an ex-valedictorian, has the best job of her friends in her Houston circle-but not for long. An aspiring documentary filmmaker, she gets fired from a local morning-TV show when she sabotages the show's unctuous host, then turns for help in her jobless depression to a telephone psychic, running up $400 in 1-900 calls. She's been making a documentary of her friends featuring her tart-tongued roommate Vickie (Janeane Garofalo), who works at The Gap and dumps man after man before they can dump her; the affably asexual Sammy (Steve Zahn), who's gay but celibate; and Troy (Ethan Hawke), a heady slacker heartthrob who won't hold a job.

Everybody can sense the sexual tension between Lelaina and Troy. "Would you two just do it and get it over with?" quips Vickie. But Lelaina doesn't want to ruin their friendship, and Troy, Mr. Cool, is too in love with his detachment to risk romance. Enter Michael (director Stiller), a young video executive who's instantly smitten with Lelaina -- and wants to air her documentary on his MTV-style "In Your Face" show. Troy takes one look at his Italian suits and sneers, "He's the reason Cliff Notes were invented." Refreshingly, the battle over Lelaina is not as cut and dried as one might fear. "Reality Bites" doesn't stack the deck to score easy points off the Yuppie. Michael's foolish and shallow, but he's a mensch. And Troy is much too aware he's the cutest dude around: his stoned arrogance has a cruel streak. Ryder, Hawke, Stiller and Garofalo turn these paradigms into wonderfully tasty characters. Written with verve and played with grace, "Reality Bites" is too smart to pass itself off as a definitive statement, but it gets the details delightfully right. Stiller, the 28-year-old son of actors Jerry Stiller and Anne Meara, showed his satirical skills on the Emmy-winning "The Ben Stiller Show." Now he demonstrates that he's a deft cinematic storyteller. He won't be worrying where his next job is coming from.