Empire Records may very well be the “safest” movie of Generation X. It is not bad by any long shot. But believe me when I say it is not that good either. It is sort of a studio take on movies like Clerks and Slacker. It tries to be a montage about alienated teenagers who try and fight maturity for as long as possible. This lead to good results for other films, but not for this one. This is because it fails at the fundamentals; none of the characters are particularly memorable or even likable.
Instead of paying tribute, the film chose to imitate. It is not bad; the actors do give good performances and there are some funny moments in the film. But there are far better ones than this.
The film is another one of those montages that follows the day in the lives of various clerks…you know, kind of like Clerks. Only this film takes place in an independent record store called Empire Records, and there are far more clerks. The main plot focuses on the store being bought out by a chain and one employee, Lucas(Rory Cochrane, he who built bongs in shop class in Dazed and Confused), trying to take a night deposit to Atlantic City so he can win money and buy the store to prevent the takeover. He fails and gets in trouble with the manager Joe Reaves (Anthony LaPaglia). This occurs on Rex Manning Day, in which Manning (Maxwell Caufield) comes to sign autographs. The clerks berate him, their situation, and their new owners. The film also stars Renee Zellwegger (as the oversexed Gina), Liv Tyler (as Corey, the girl who just got into Harvard and has an obsession with Manning) and Debi Mazar (as Jane, who comes into work with a bandage on her wrist).
Now, sounds like a good diverse cast of solid actors, right? It is. The cast members seem to have a real chemistry with each other and play the roles of jaded Xers well. But that’s the thing. We have seen this sort of movie before. Clerks took it about as far as it could go; this one does nothing to add. It exists as a type of store that does not exist to sell merchandise but to act as a sort of hang out for the employees. Nothing really happens and when it does, it is mostly because the characters are too stupid to think about the consequences of their actions.
Plus the plot has some rather bizarre inconsistencies. Lucas stole from the store. Joe waits far too long to call the cops, even turning himself into an accessory to the crime by lying to the store owner. These days, do you think that any staff would get away with stealing ten thousand dollars? Even for a second? Well that is the sort of operation that is run here. Would any store also allow the employees to dance around half naked in the back room, or to shave their heads bald in the bathroom? Or scream at their manager? Or take drugs in teh bathroom and have sex with the special guest of the store? So much of what the employees do at the store makes no sense. Retail employees are hardly high on the managers minds (trust me on this one), and they were not in Clerks as well. Yet they are here, to a point where I question their motives. Only they have no motives; this is a movie for the slacker generation after all.
Plus, the discussion of the music is rather bizarre. GWAR is terrible, there is no reason to give them a cameo. I did laugh at the mention of the Shaggs (if anyone has not listened to Philosophy of the World, please do so now) but they are not really anything beyond a joke. Also, the soundtrack is rather hit or miss. Clerks was much better in this regard; it gave certain bands exposure. They are not bad bands, but soundtrack feels like it was trying to pander to an audience rather than challenge them.
I don’t know what else to say. I can see why this is a cult classic among people who are nostalgic for the nineties. It does look like a fun store; a type that is tragically dying a slow death. But this is not how I remember record stores. This is most certainly not the sort of time capsule that it needs to be. It is a dated, hackneyed film that Richard Linklater is glad he does not make.