Director Yedidya Gorsetman and scenarist Mark Leidner’s first feature “Jammed” was a well-reviewed (if little-seen) comedy set in the twirlydancing stoner universe of a jam-band festival. Their sophomore effort does an about-face from that rainbow tie-dye milieu to the monochrome severity of a black-and-white neo-noir. But surface aesthetics are hardly the only factor that shifts in “Empathy, Inc.,” a clever indie suspense that draws on fantasy-tinged notions of virtual reality and identity exchange to create an ingenious tale more in the realm of an intimately-scaled thriller than sci-fi. Opening on a single Los Angeles screen on Sept. 6, with more cities added Sept. 13 and VOD launch on the 24th, this arresting tale should not only prove a career leg-up for all involved, it might also attract remake offers.
Venture capitalist Joel (Paul Rudd-looking Zack Robidas) begins the film at a serious low ebb: He’s had to take the fall for a high-profile, Elizabeth Holmes-like Silicon Valley boondoggle. Learning that his trusted inventor falsified data to suggest a technological breakthrough he was nowhere near delivering, Joel gets publicly scapegoated for sending nearly $100 million in investor funds down the drain. He and loyal spouse Jessica (Kathy Searle) crawl back to her parents’ home on the East Coast to start afresh. There, the in-laws (Charmaine Reedy, Fenton Lawless) make it immediately clear they plan to be “helpful” in the pushiest, most controlling and invasive ways possible.
Storming out in a huff, Joel heads to the nearest bar, where he runs into an old acquaintance. Nick (Eric Berryman) once had a rep as a shady operator, but now claims he has a “sure thing” in a tiny startup whose product is “revolutionary.” It’s a form of “extreme” virtual reality that allows “high-end clients to feel what it’s like to be under-privileged.” This may well sound unappealing, but Nick assures, “People are miserable because they forget what they have. We give them … perspective.” Joel is skeptical. Yet after bullying his way into checking out the merchandise, so to speak, he’s sufficiently blown away to finesse a substantial investment contribution from his overbearing but greedy ex-cop father-in-law.
Spending a few minutes in another man’s shoes — complete with miraculously convincing smell, touch and taste aspects — proves addicting, however. Soon Joel is going behind Nick and off-putting inventor Lester (Jay Klaitz), stealing a key to their lab lab so he can sneak in at night and experience more vicarious thrills on the wrong side of the tracks. But these seemingly illusory escapades (which include a violent altercation with a city policeman) grow less so when Joel spies newspaper reports of crimes he thought he’d only committed “virtually.” Worse, he might be committing even greater harm during blackouts, or some other altered state.
Though a completely different film in every other respect, “Empathy, Inc.” recalls recent German horror film “Luz” in that eventually we realize seeing is not believing — characters here may look like “themselves,” while actually inhabiting another person’s body. Things get very twisty in the last half hour, when Joel realizes he’s been conned, then blackmailed, and tries to turn the tables on his nemeses. Leidner’s screenplay pulls compelling, unpredictable reversals of fortune right up to the finish line.
The serpentine story is so adroit you hardly notice that the filmmakers have managed to pull off a rollercoaster-ish thriller with just a few actors and fewer locations. More than one of those performers is eventually called upon to go the extra mile in portraying additional characters beyond their principal one, something they handle with admirable restraint. (Not among them is Karen Lynn Gorney, Travolta’s erstwhile “Saturday Night Fever” dancing partner, who has a small but significant role here as one of Joel’s less-fortunate new acquaintances.)
There’s a strong compositional sense to DP Darin Quan’s images that really pops in the film’s monochromatic widescreen format. Another plus is Omri Anghel’s pulsing electronic score.