A soundtrack in search of a movie, “Empire Records” is one teen-music effort that never finds a groove. As far as chart action goes, it could use a bullet — to put it out of its B.O. misery. Look for accompanying CD to roll on well past pic’s quick expiration date. Warners slipped the film out Sept. 22 in four regional markets.
Reality may indeed bite the dazed and confused clerks who sort-of work at a small record store in an unnamed Eastern city, but it doesn’t chomp hard enough to provoke interest in their vaguely defined talents and woes. The too-huge cast is led by soulful Anthony LaPaglia, who plays Joe, a frustrated store manager who has small dreams of owning the funky shop. These are dashed when spookily sincere Lucas (Rory Cochrane) grabs Joe’s down payment and — in one of those developments that only happens in the movies — blows it in an Atlantic City bid to double the kitty.
This doesn’t have much effect on the other employees. Possessing roughly one personality trait each, they include doofy mosh-head Mark (Ethan Randall); pouty house babe Gina (Rene Zellweger, last seen with Cochrane in “Love and a .45”); and would-be artist A.J. (Johnny Whitworth), who has a secret crush on anorexic good-girl Corey (Liv Tyler). The only real standout in this surly, self-absorbed crowd is Robin Tunney, who brings some needed gravity to the suicidal, shaved-head Deb. And Maxwell Caulfield, in a George Hamilton tan, is effective as a dippy MOR star.
Still, the young thesps are game enough, and isolated moments of comedy and drama click, almost in spite of a script that has everyone bouncing around like improv players on a bad audience-participation night. Thin material — forever yoked to that lame get-the-money premise — is in no way shaped by helmer Allan Moyle, who was so good at building tension with the essentially two-handed “Pump Up the Volume.” Some character-axing might have helped, along with tighter editing and smarter continuity. Is it a gaffe or grungy realism when as many as 12 employees are gathered, not one of them visible on the shop floor?
As a late-entry counterculture statement, the pic is even weirder: The evils of capitalism are boiled down to a tepid battle between indie-minded Empire and the mega-franchise Music Town (shouldn’t those names have been reversed?), and the System itself is represented by one sniveling suit (Ben Bode). People prattle about diversity, but minority-free cast and glaringly homophobic jokes make it clear this revolution ain’t about change: It’s about nose rings ‘n’ beer.
Pic makes no missteps where tunes are concerned, with a fun mix of old-timers (from the Buggles to Dire Straits) rubbing up against more esoteric alternative types (Cracker, Gwar, Ass Ponys). Nice look, great sound and indefinable youth luster will make “Records” play OK on vid, especially at parties where frenetic aimlessness is not a negative.