February 21, 1994 12:00 PM

Winona Ryder, Ethan Hawke, Ben Stiller

Ryder, whose mix of fragile Beauty and emotional steel stole The Age of Innocence right out from under Daniel Day-Lewis’s aquiline nose, is merely lustrously pretty in this slick comedy-drama, which seems to have been cloned from genetic material developed in the labs at MTV.

Recently graduated from college, Ryder spends much of her time noodling around with a videocam, shooting her roommates in Houston. One of her subjects is Hawke, doing the goateed, neo-Beatnik thing. Should Ryder give her heart to this world-weary slacker or to Stiller, a rising executive with an MTV-style network? Any intelligent adult would pick Stiller. He’s moderately sensitive, he drives a nice car, and he knows as much One Day at a Time trivia as Ryder’s smugly pop-cultivated friends. Hawke, however, uses the word “ontological” on his answering-machine message, and sings about being and nothingness. Jack Kerouac would have tossed him from a speeding vehicle.

But Reality Bites is not, to borrow another reference from MTV, the real world. Not remotely (although Stiller, who directed, treats his cast with sympathy and affection). There have been plenty of movies in the past year that dealt more authentically with coming-of-age issues: Dazed and Confused, Ruby in Paradise, Naked, Menace II Society. Even the unjustly despised Cabin Boy. (PG-13)

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