The 1990s were indisputably the era for teen melodramas featuring pretty White people with problems. This decade alone churned out so many cult classics which are currently simultaneously nostalgic and cringe-worthy, and though Empire Records may not be the worst of the bunch, it is so very far from being the best. The film is named after a fictitious record shop run in some obscure city in Delaware by Joe (Anthony LaPaglia, whom we can all agree is better used for solving fictitious crimes). Joe employs some of the most angsty, unreliable, and self-absorbed teenagers in the tri-state area, a move which is inherently stressful, and causes Joe, who has issues of his own, to explode in intermittent rages, blaming his adolescent employees for mishaps which are ultimately his fault, for hiring people who he knew weren’t dependable.
Among Joe’s employees are the lovable, optimistic Mark (Ethan Embry), depressed and slightly hostile Deb (Robin Tunney, playing the same wet blanket character she did in The Craft, only bald, so therefore “edgy”), Deb’s boyfriend, Berko (Coyote Shivers), promiscuous, fun-loving Gina (Renee Zellweger), her straight-laced best friend, Corey (Live Tyler), the scruffy but handsome AJ (Johnny Whitworth), and Joe’s foster son, Lucas (Rory Cochrane).
When left in charge of closing the store, Lucas accidentally discovers that Empire Records will soon be sold to a musical conglomorate called Music Town, which will acquire and rename the store, effectively making it what all the employees hate most: mainstream. Stealing from the store in the hopes of gambling and quadrupling the money in order to save it, Lucas loses all of the money.
In the midst of this drama, Deb and Berko are dealing with her rampant suicidal thoughts, AJ wants to declare his feelings for Corey, and Corey and Gina find themselves on the outs over Rex Manning (Max Caulfield), a washed up celebrity who’s being hosted by the store for the day in order to take pictures and sign autographs for his fan base. In addition to all of the hormones and secrets thick in the air, the employees of the store must also contend with “Warren Beatty” (Brendan Sexton III), a young shoplifter.
I’m not sure how much money was spent to make Empire Records, but it didn’t make very much in theatres, and the large but also largely underdeveloped cast of main characters is probably the reason why. Every single damn body has a backstory, but just when that story starts to get interesting, we shift to someone else and their issues. Had Heikkinen focused on developing even two of these many central characters in a way which could have allowed audiences to bond with them, it could have made a real difference for this film. As it is, when we do focus on a character for longer than 3 minutes, it’s Corey, hands down the prettiest but most boring person in this film. Corey’s amphetamine addiction, a much more interesting story line, is obscured by AJ’s infatuation with her, which then becomes everyone’s burden to carry, as Corey wrestles with her feelings, and AJ pouts over being rejected, like the Nice Guy™ that he is.
Empire Records is so damn messy, and enjoyable, and aggy, and whimsical, and reminiscent of the end of an era. The fashion never fails to bring a smile to my face and this soundtrack, as you could expect from a film about a record store, is on point. But let’s be honest: There’s a reason why this film was a box office disaster, and it isn’t because it’s just so clever that people back then didn’t “get it”. Empire Records is all over the place, lacking cohesion, and tragically under-utilized Zellweger and Embry, probably the most talented of the cast members. Zellweger in particular stole every scene she was in, but Gina was clearly written to be the “slutty” friend to balance Corey’s golden girl. Meanwhile, Embry was a caricature of a character who is either autistic, or on some really good drugs. Tunney lacked the emotional depth to do the character of Deb some justice, and Berko was just wholly unnecessary, a character whose absence would have had little to no effect on the film. But Empire Records, by virtue of the casts’ later successes, and the fact that it is now over the drinking age, is a “teen classic”, and no movie lover worth their clout hasn’t seen it.
I give this one 2.5 stars.