Los Angeles.--To date myself: I was a sophomore in college in 1958 when the movie "Gigi" came out. There was a song in it, sung by Maurice Chevalier, that we all laughed about, called "I'm Glad I'm Not Young Anymore."
That still seemed funny to me until Monday when my wife and I went to see "Reality Bites," the film some critics seem to think defines the new generation of post-baby boomers, Generation X. If they are right and this is what it is like to be young and educated in 1994, I am now glad I'm not young anymore.
The theater was jammed with people the same age as the college graduates on screen, 23 or 24. We went with one son, 24, and his girlfriend, 22, both graduates of the same expensive Eastern college -- in case we needed translators.
It's not such a bad movie . . . well, actually it is pretty bad. There is some good acting, particularly by Janeane Garofalo as the best friend, and a few laughs that cross generation gaps. The girl appears in a new lace dress and the boy says, "You look like a doily." The screenwriter, Helen Childress, is only 22 herself and apparently did not realize she was basically updating "The Graduate," which came out four years before she was born. There may be only so many stories to be written about the intensity of being young and promising.
The people in the movie are obsessed by what they see as their own superiority to other human beings, particularly older ones. Nothing new about that. The girl, Lanie (played by Winona Ryder), feels compelled to tell people she was valedictorian of her class. The boy, Troy (Ethan Hawke), brags about his IQ when anyone asks why he seems unable to escape his couch and channel clicker.
There are internal contradictions in the movie, and one is that the valedictorian, being interviewed for a job at the Houston Chronicle, goes blank when an editor asks her the definition of "irony." Is that now possible for even fictional 4.0 students? Finally the girl says, "I know it when I see it."
That, I think, was meant to be profound. She is a visual person, see? She walks around with a hand-held video camera making slightly out-of-focus tapes of her friends saying slightly out-of-focus things. She says this makes her "a documentary filmmaker." A "brilliant" one, everybody says, though there is no evidence of that on the big screen. She is, by the way, enormously impressed when the boy, who wants to be a rock star and says he would like to distribute free cocaine, does define irony -- proof that IQ really does mean something.
Seeing is believing for these Generation X folk in a rather chilling way. Their wisdom is presented as encyclopedic knowledge of old-time prime-time television. "One Day at a Time" and Jimmy Walker are examples of their cultural references. There is nothing wrong with that -- except, ironically, they do seem to equate it with Shakespeare, whom the boy, it is revealed, has actually read.
These are supposed to be our brightest and best. Certainly they would not disagree. They have risen above clean clothes or hair and above any work that does not involve guitars or tape-editing. They are not bad kids, either, dishonest only with themselves or their parents. The girl is given a BMW by her father for graduation, and she withers him by saying she will keep it only until she buys her own car. The gas credit card he gives her is used to feed her friends on the fast food sold at service stations.
Pretty harmless, most of it. I sat there thinking that the film had to be about more than giving up before you start out -- and I was not disappointed. There was a message revealed at the end. The valedictorian, within weeks, has crashed the BMW, lost her job writing questions for a dopey morning television-show host and turned herself into a petty crook, spending days and nights calling 900-number psychics from under a quilt on the magic couch -- blaming everyone but herself all the while.
Then she turns it around. Or it turns itself around. It happens. The boy says he loves her. Joy and triumph. They ride off into the sunset, sort of. A Doris Day movie in grunge.
In the end, the reality they hate most is that baby boomers run the world. And judging by this generational attack, the boomers will stay on top for a very, very long time.
Richard Reeves is a syndicated columnist.