And now for Shamedown #2. Want some background on Shamedowns? Please visit Cinema Shame here.
In 1995, the same year I graduated from high school, an ensemble film called Empire Records hit theaters. It wasn’t a success; it really didn’t go anywhere. Still, when it popped onto Netflix, I thought, “Why not? Liv Tyler’s cool. Nostalgia sounds fun.”
Heh. Famous last words. Liv Tyler remains cool, but the movie stinks. I mean, stinks. I don’t know if it’s because it’s dated or my Gen-Xer self is even more jaded and cynical since I graduated high school, but it’s a bad sign when a movie keeps me hitting the pause button.
Empire Records takes place over a twenty-four hour period. Lucas (Rory Cochrane) has been chosen by his manager, Joe, to close out the previous day at Empire Records. He’s been given explicit instructions to count the money twice and stay away from Joe’s cigars and beer.
The only part that Lucas gets right is counting the money twice. He’s busily sipping beer and smoking until he sees a notice that Martin, the store owner, is thinking of selling Empire Records to a big chain, Music City. So he does what any normal, red-blooded American kid would do: He takes the day’s earnings to an Atlantic City casino, where he loses double the amount at the craps tables.
It goes without saying that Joe (Anthony LaPaglia) is ticked off when he comes into work the next day and sees an empty safe. He banishes Lucas to the couch while he decides what to do. Lucas has a long time to wait, though, because Rex Manning is due to make a personal appearance at Empire Records. In the meantime, Lucas’s coworkers are showing up.
They’re a pretty motley bunch, but they’re a tight crew, picking their morning psych-up song based on what color M&M comes out of the box first. Corey (Liv Tyler) is the girl next door who’s bound for Harvard. Gina (Renee Zellweger) is her best friend and the wild child. There’s A.J. (Johnny Whitworth), who’s the resident artist and secretly in love with Corey. Marc (Ethan Embry) is a goofy kid who just wants to start a band. Debra (Robin Tunney) is the Goth chick who has her wrists bandaged from last night’s suicide attempt. She makes a beeline for the store’s back room, where she shaves her head. Last but not least are punk dude Berko (Coyote Shivers) and shampoo-averse Eddie (James ‘Kimo’ Wills), the latter of whom serves no other purpose than bringing back pizza or (at that time) illegal addictive substances.
I wish there was more to say about these people, but other than a few defining characteristics, they’re little more than stock characters. Where they all end up is no shock, of course.
But never mind all that. It’s Rex Manning Day, and women are lining up to see him. When he emerges from his limo, one fully expects to hear an angel choir announcing his presence and nymphs throwing rose petals for him to walk on. His videos are pop fluff, full of women who drape themselves all over him while he does jazz squares with his shirt billowing open.
This guy is hot and he knows it. At least, that’s what Rex (Maxwell Caulfield) tells himself. In reality, he’s a formal teen idol encased in satin, hairspray, and bronzer. The women in line to see him are either older or getting autographs for their moms. Even Rex’s publicist, Jane (Debi Mazar) can’t stand him and quits just for the heck of it.
Corey is sweet on him at first, and insists on serving Rex his lunch. She sets out a spread fit for a king before she strips down to her bra and panties. Rex is fully willing to reciprocate, and Corey runs away.
This story arc is bad on so many levels, and not just about Corey propositioning a carefully coddled fake. Or about that whole statutory rape angle. About half of Corey’s day is lousy. She comes back from lunch with Gina, where the two of them have a fight. Gina thinks Corey acts like she’s perfect; Corey thinks Gina will sleep with any guy at the drop of…something. Gina’s response is to find Rex and shag him. Long story short, this interlude winds up with the future Bridget Jones and the future Arwen of Rivendell having a catfight. On the bright side, though, A.J. declares his love for Corey, so things are looking up.
Lest we forget, there’s a store to run. Even though the blinds on Joe’s office door read, “Work,” as does a sticker on the wall, Empire Records is a freeform place. The characters find a lot of time to crank the tunes and headbang, as well as hang out in the back room. The only vaguely retail thing they do is catch a shoplifter who calls himself Warren Beatty. Warren is banished to the couch with Lucas until the cops get there, and then he’s hauled off to jail. He comes back with a gun, gets hauled off again, and then comes back a third time with a sob story about just wanting a job.
Sigh. And oh yeah, there’s the looming menace of the store being sold to Music City, which will require all employees to be one-note drones. There’s still time to throw Debra a mock funeral, though, just to show her how much she’s loved.
Does this movie sound like a mess? That’s because it is. I haven’t even attempted to tell about it in order, because it has none. The characters are very surface-y and shallow, and the obvious purpose of this film was to get teenagers like the one I once was into the theater.
I get the idea behind it, but in order for a movie like this to work, the characters would need to headbang less and talk more, and these characters aren’t about to do that. The only character who could have made that happen is Joe, who’s a father figure to the kids, but not so much that he gets them pouring their hearts out to him.
It could be worse, I guess. Unlike other movies of the period, Empire Records doesn’t lay on the smut or show obvious drug use. This is not Fast Times At Ridgemont High. However, it’s not a modern-day Seventeen, either, or maybe The Importance of Being Earnest. I really wish it had been. On the other hand, though, I wasn’t expecting much, and I saw what I came for: Nostalgia and Liv Tyler.
The only thing I have to wonder is: If I had seen Empire Records when it came out, would I have liked it any better? Meh, probably not. A mess is a mess, no matter how much time has passed.
Why are most of the movies I’ve reviewed so far this year mediocre to bad? Okay, the blogathon we had in February was fun, but that snark was on purpose. I just don’t want to be Bosley Crowther, that’s all. Oh well, the year is young. Thanks for reading, all, and see you Friday!
Empire Records is available on DVD from Amazon.