If you think the current zeitgeist is oversaturated with millennials and listless, post-graduate 20-somethings of the Hannah Horvath ilk, just turn your nostalgia dial back two decades to February 1994, when Ben Stiller’s directorial debut, , premiered.
(A decade before the Mumblecore movement, a major studio-backed movie without conventional romantic comedy tropes wouldn’t have sold well.) Winona Ryder plays Lelaina Pierce, a documentary filmmaker who struggles with her professional ideals after losing her entry-level day job as an assistant on a cheesy morning news program.
Her dating life is just as complicated; she’s torn between Michael Grates (played by Ben Stiller), the rather dim yuppie who runs In Your Face and wants to buy Lelaina’s -esque documentary about her friends, and Troy Dyer (Ethan Hawke), her grungy, out-of-work musician friend / roommate.
(Neither of her options are really any good for her, which may be the film’s major flaw.) While the plot is certainly a loose one, as in most movies about seeking creative fulfillment, the film’s success has more to do with the collection of scenes it plays out than the whole.
There are moments that still feel remarkably honest and real without being too heightened and broadened to fit into a major studio comedy.
Rounding out the circle of friends is Vickie Miner and Sammy Grates, played by Janeane Garofalo and Steve Zahn in two breakout roles.
It’s through these two that the film is able to comment on the sexual lives of the generation, and all of the complications that seemingly endless opportunities can bring.
Vickie struggles with the fear of AIDS (in, I’ll admit, a particularly heterosexual spin on the AIDS crisis that was prevalent in pop culture of the ’90s), showing that taking advantage of one’s sexuality also brings with it emotional consequences.
The characters, for the most part, sit around and drink beer, smoke an endless pack of cigarettes, and talk — about their lives, frustrations, feelings, and, often, ’70s TV ranging from .
Lelaina goes on a series of terrible interviews, which culminate in her asking for a loan from her mother, who suggests she get a job at a fast-food restaurant after seeing a “retarded” boy working the register.