Even for a nineties kid like me, I can fully acknowledge that “Empire Records” is a clumsy, tonally uneven, and terrible coming of age dramedy. It works hard to be as relevant and generation defining as “Dazed and Confused” or “Clerks,” but it comes up short as artificial and hollow, despite its great soundtrack. “Empire Records” even for 1995 is a pretty insufferable film that never quite finds humanity in its archetypes and cast of nineties youngsters. It’s hard to enjoy a film that features a fun sing along to AC/DC one moment, and a tear soaked nervous breakdown by one of the characters who pops pills forty five minutes later.
“Empire Records” is an attempted commentary on consumerism and the take over the mom and pop music stores, as we meet the crew of independent record shop Empire Records. Store manager Joe is intending to invest in the shop to keep it from being swallowed up by big chain “Big Music,” but his dreams are crushed when night manager Lucas foolishly bets his entire nine thousand dollars on the craps table at Atlantic City. Hoping to distract the owner with the arrival of pop star Rex Manning, Joe looks for a way to keep the store from being bought out, all the while the group of employees comes to terms with their own lives.
Director Allan Moyle has all the right ingredients for a charming and emotional drama comedy, but none of the characters ever really rise above cardboard cut out cartoons. Characters are written either to work as plot devices, props, dramatic devices. Even Ethan Embry’s character is an odd inclusion that never quite tones down his levels of sheer annoyance throughout the film. For such a shallow film, the soundtrack is at least fantastic with an eclectic mix of classic rock, classic pop, and a lot of modern one hit wonders from the decade. Often times the soundtrack is way too good for what little interesting drama and comedy that unfolds. There’s also a strong cast including Robin Tunney, Rory Cochrane, and Liv Tyler.
Cochrane is one of the best things about the film, as his character Lucas is a charmingly misplaced loser who redeems himself way too early in the narrative, kind of rendering the goofy climax void. “Empire Records” watches like a truncated TV drama that jumps from episode to episode without any real cohesive or strong narrative. Everything from the sing alongs, to Rex Manning’s awkward record signing, to the bizarre emotional breakdown in the climax feel more episodic than a series of events set during a single day. There’s no real idea that we’re watching the film in real time like “Dazed and Confused” or “American Graffiti,” even though Moyle works hard to sell the concept. A drama lacking depth, and a comedy bereft of actual laughs, “Empire Records” is a great nineties film–if you never actually experienced the nineties.