When I look back at the films of my youth one thing remains constant—I love a 90s slacker. Tall, long-haired, ripped up jeans and cardigans falling disheveled off their shoulders. These are the men I always kept in the back of my mind as I entered the dating world. However, it wasn’t until a friend pointed it out that I realized I had such a 90s slacker fixation. To me, the characters Ethan Hawke, Christian Bale, and Rory Cochrane played in early to mid 90s films embodied everything sensual and perfect about being an adult. Especially their rejection of the adult world as it was.
As I aged, I started to notice other benefits to these men. They were creative, romantic, adventurous, smoked (which always makes you sexy, no?), and most of all magnetic to everyone around them. Reality Bites’ main bad-boy Troy Dyer (Hawke) was the ultimate artist. He painted, wrote music, and left every woman swooning after him. His detachment from his best friend Lelaina (Winona Ryder) only intensified her need for him, and encouraged their eventual coitus. It wasn’t that he tried hard to get the girl, he just couldn’t keep them from coming at him. Who cared if he couldn’t hold down a job, or pay his share of the rent? Troy was always a charmer capable of surviving, and with him went my heart.
The Winona Ryder Effect
With the surge of isolated young couples in 90s films, it’s easy to look back at that time as the decade of Winona Ryder. She was the original manic pixie dream girl, waifish and beautiful, and seasoned like a champ. Entire research papers have been devoted to analyzing her contributions to the portrayal of the disenfranchised Generation X. And her own life has followed a path relatively close to the ones her characters were always so afraid of—burning out young and spending the rest of her life as an out-of-work pop culture idol. Despite her best intentions, and amazing acting ability proven alone in last year’s Black Swan, Ryder will always be Lelaina Pierce, Jo March, Veronica, or Kim. And when paired with the right leading man, their chemistry is still palpable.
Although she had been acting for years opposite hot men, 1994 was the year of Ryder. She appeared in two of her most identifiable romantic roles, Reality Bites opposite Hawke and Little Women opposite Christian Bale. While only one of these two films featured a sex scene, both of them showcased Ryder’s magnetism with her co-stars. The chemistry between her and Hawke distracted the average viewer from realizing the characters’ shortcomings, as she struggled with her choice between the manic Troy and the safe, if not hyper sensitive, Michael Grates (Ben Stiller). Although Troy broke her heart time after time, Lelaina recognizes that he completes her. They could be two sexy hipsters, stepping into their unsure futures together.
Two people focused on artistic integrity belong with each other, and I only hope that the sex they had later into their courtship was dull and utterly self-involved. They can’t be that lucky, can they?
But then there was Laurie and Jo – the ultimate chaste love story of the 90s. The young should-have-been lovers felt so real and relatable, and sixteen years later it is still painful thinking of their failed romance. Chemistry vibrated off them and it hurt to watch the couple, for argument’s sake, settle for other partners. The shared glances, intense moments in the house’s parlor, and the expectation for greatness both saw in the other tricked the audience into believing Jo and Laurie were soul mates. Laurie was a rich slacker who only discovered his potential once Jo pointed it out – how could he do anything but love her for it? Jo, on the other hand, wanted more and no amount of steamy kisses and love confessions from Laurie would change her mind. No other person could complete them, even if their love affair would probably end with Jo giving up her writing dreams and Laurie forgetting why he loved her in the first place. They were opposites who fit perfectly, but they were never meant to be more than brother and sister.
Damn the Man, Save the Empire
At the end of the day, the frustratingly lovable slacker artist and the intense mid 19th century rich boy neighbor were no match for Lucas. The characters and relationship dichotomies in Empire Records were a rare blend of baffling, enticing, romantic, and simple. Most people focus on the developing coupling of A.J. (Johnny Whitworth) and Corey (Liv Tyler), but I always found Lucas’s mischievous nature to be the more engaging part of the story. While he is the sexless Puck of the story, his efforts bring together all the other budding relationships. Without his guidance, Corey and A.J. would never have found their way into each other’s arms and on their way to Boston together. Or how Joe (Anthony LaPaglia) wouldn’t have been pushed enough to not only buy Empire Records but to also find love in Jane (Debi Mazar).
Lucas’s rejection of love in Empire Records makes him the ultimate slacker sex god. He never tried to be sexy, but that intensified the fact that he was incredibly sexy. Sex and love in his personal life were unimportant to him, unless of course it was to expose how sex with the wrong person can destroy a relationship faster than it takes to build one. In a way, Lucas was a sex PSA aimed directly at the slacker generation. Though meddlesome, he wasn’t a bad person, as the joy he received from making other people happy exposed his genial views on love–but from a distance.
Slackers always get a bad rap for being self-involved and lazy, but their love stories speak to an entire generation of young adults. The suggestion is that because they are more artistic they are more romantic, but even heightened romance can turn sour, or worse—dull. Let’s just chose not to look back at these movies as adults, but instead as the lost souls we once were.