As the media falls all over itself to define Generation X, it might be useful, cinematically speaking, to think of today's twentysomethings as the generation John Hughes forgot. After all, many of the post-baby boomers grew up on Hughes' movies the first commercial comedies to confront the children of new wave, PCs, and The Brady Bunch. They were the ones his movies were about. Yet by the time he made Pretty in Pink (1986), Hughes no longer had his finger on the pulse of the youth market, and there was virtually no one there to take his place.
Now, though, a new genre seems to be rising from the post-Hughes ashes. Three current independent features each try to capture the mood of X'ers as they search for intimacy in a world of cooled-out hopes and diminished illusions. Ensemble love stories all, these films stake out an emotional terrain somewhere between the delicate romanticism of Say Anything (1989) and the living-in-your-own-head affectlessness of Slacker (1991). Along with sex, lies, and videotape (1989), they are, in effect, the first romantic comedies of the postromantic age.
If only they were all as good as Watch It. Directed by 38-year-old Tom Flynn, this movie about four vaguely jockish guys sharing a house in Chicago one leisurely summer makes no big claims for itself, yet it's a witty, up-to-the-minute inventory of the male psyche. The characters are a typical zeitgeist variety pack. Michael (Jon Tenney), an ice-hearted stud, is capable of seducing a woman without raising his own pulse by three beats. John (Peter Gallagher), Michael's estranged cousin, is his opposite number. He's utterly honest and soulful, and that's his problem; his lack of guile doesn't allow enough room for the kinks of others. As the summer progresses, these two find themselves warring for the affections of Anne (Suzy Amis), a veterinarian who uses male selfishness as an excuse to opt out of involvement. Rounding out the quartet are Rick (John C. McGinley), a hyperkinetic salesman who fancies himself a bastard (poor guy he's only half right), and Danny (Tom Sizemore), a quizzical used-car dealer.
Flynn's plotting is nothing special, but his zesty dialogue is a treat; his characters keep peeling back facades and revealing new ones. And the cast is first-rate: Gallagher, with his ripe pout and pining eyes, has rarely been more appealing, and McGinley has a comic triumph as the hostile, motor-mouthed Rick, who's as spiky as a stegosaurus. The game of ''watch it,'' in which the four try to top one another with elaborate practical jokes, becomes a nifty metaphor for the programmed rivalry that conspires to keep American males in a state of spiritual adolescence. The characters in Watch It behave like shockingly insensitive jerks, nice guys, and everything in between. The film deftly captures an era in which men have turned into marionettes doing a forced dance between the two extremes.
Don't make the mistake of confusing Bodies, Rest & Motion with mere entertainment: This painfully rarified youth movie is like a soap opera for art-school phonies. It's set in the small desert town of Enfield, Ariz., with Bridget Fonda and Tim Roth as a couple who've spent too long coasting on attachment without love. Phoebe Cates is Roth's ex-girlfriend, and Eric Stoltz is the sexy, wise, laid-back, homily-spouting house painter who turns out to be Fonda's ardent savior. Stoltz, who also served as producer, gives such a smug performance that he might have wrecked the film that is, if director Michael Steinberg and screenwriter Roger Hedden hadn't done the job for him. They're out to capture the way that today's twentysomethings use words as ironic shields. Only they've done it by reducing their actors to poses. The normally charismatic Roth spends the film tossing his page boy hair, and Fonda can't seem to merge her waifish demeanor with the jadedness she's called upon to portray. You can admire the ambition of Bodies and still be put off by its terminally stilted dialogue and stagnant parade of ''attitudes.'' It's a lushly photographed bore.
The Night We Never Met, on the other hand, is far too inept to be boring. A romantic farce about three young New Yorkers who take shares in a dingy apartment each one gets the place for a couple of nights a week-the film is like some inadvertent Generation X version of Love, American Style. This is a movie in which a yuppie-pig financial analyst (Kevin Anderson) can't open his mouth without saying ''Dude!'' or ''Babe!'' or ''Hey, guy!''; in which all women are vegetarians; in which the hero (Matthew Broderick) meets a bubbly Norwegian sex bomb named Inga; in which the heroine (Annabella Sciorra) makes a blind date with Broderick, accidentally sleeps with the financial analyst, and then, upon meeting Broderick, informs him that it was all a mistake she'd actually intended to sleep with him (in other words, with a different guy she'd never laid eyes on). The Night We Never Met proves that generations may shift but truly awful movies never go out of style. The Night We Never Met: D