Empire Records (1995)

D: Allan Moyle
S: Anthony LaPaglia, Liv Tyler

Energetic 1990s equivalent of John Hughes' 1980s teen flicks (The Breakfast Club, Pretty in Pink) in which a group of nonconformist adolescents question the values of the system which constrains them by behaving 'irresponsibly' while at a crossroads in their lives. The film nominally concerns the events which occur during one day at an independent music store threatened with takeover by a corporate chain. The various young staff members go through assorted crises and endure various confrontations which reveal their contrasting philosophies of life and eventually resolve enough of them to close out the plot. It is very loosely narrated however, and ultimately amounts to something less than a complete story, though it is something slightly more than the anecdotal meanderings of Slacker. Its pace is is main virtue, and though this flags before the end, it is also buoyed by nice turns by a young and attractive cast, including Liv Tyler, Rory Cochrane and Rene Zellweger.

Like those John Hughes films however, it is more superficial and self-satisfied than is good for it, and its restless 1990s penchant for jumping from scene to scene before any genuine emotion has time to develop keeps it from ever moving out of first gear. It has all the visual and aural hooks to attract a certain type of viewer, and win from them the kind of admiration which elevates a minor film to an exemplar of life philosophy, but a more measured judgment will find it entertaining without being particularly insightful. It throws in everything but the kitchen sink in terms of character and conversation, with a gleefully useful cross-section of personality types pitted against one another in an enclosed setting which produces the expected results. The film touches on some questions relating to contemporary adolescent attitudes to responsibility, sexuality, careers, death, and above all music (hmmm), but is never credible as anything but contrivance. It is a sound-bite pop-psychological overview of teenage angst which has pretensions to be something more and may well be perceived as such by its admirers.

Of the cast Anthony LaPaglia (so good in Betsy's Wedding) is the most senior (though Maxwell Caulfield and Debi Mazar turn up briefly as an ageing crooner and his record company rep respectively), but this does not save his character from the shallowness which dogs the film's potential for development. Liv Tyler is both beautiful and a natural performer, though again, she is placed in situations too outrageously compressed to produce a modicum of authentic feeling. Similarly Rene Zellweger (from Slacker director Richard Linklater's Dazed and Confused) is given an implausible series of confrontations to play out which nonetheless give her plenty of room to demonstrate her talents. Rory Cochrane is amusing as as philosophical rebel type, with Ethan Embry doing an entertaining turn as a wannabe airhead (one sequence has him project himself into a music video to humorous ends). All of the actors have fun, and there is plenty of fast paced musical and dramatic entertainment on display for those whose level of concentration does not extend past five seconds or so, so it does make relatively easy viewing on a late night television slot.

Director Allan Moyle is best known for the similar but slightly more developed Pump up the Volume (with Christian Slater), and he does a reasonable job of rendering Carol Heikkenen's script. It does move and there are many complex ensemble scenes to block and co-ordinate which he handles with some skill. Both script and direction emphasise the upbeat however, and the film resolutely refuses depth in a way which is distressing. It plays like a lifestyle advertisement like much of the music featured prominently on its soundtrack, and the film is equally dismissible after it has run its course as a spinning record track. It has developed a substantial cult following despite, or perhaps because of, critical disapproval, so one further voice of protest at its blasé emptiness will make little difference. There is no disputing its energy and appealing cast, but it is unfortunately representative of the tendency towards worthless and meaningless films which has become practically a philosophical credo in the postmodern age, which is to be resisted.

Review by Harvey O'Brien copyright 1999.