How I wish Empire Records (1995) was a better movie. It has Liv Tyler in it as Corey, one of the many late teen/early twenty something societal outcasts who work at the free-for-all that is the title store. When I was in my high school and college years, I had the biggest crush on her. She is not the greatest actress ever, though apparently her early success is not completely owed to the fact her dad is Aerosmith’s front man Steven Tyler. She did some big name movies in the 1990s and early 2000s, and probably her most famous role was as Arwen in The Lord of the Rings trilogy. I loved every moment she is on camera, and despised the rest. It got so bad once in the late 1990s that I made my girlfriend at the time jealous of the pictures of her that I clipped from magazines. Wow, that makes me sound old, but it should also be pointed out that they were all tasteful photos, mostly red-carpet stuff. I just appreciated her beauty, and I still do. It is a shame that she did not seem to make it into bigger stardom, particularly after her role in The Incredible Hulk (2008). Who knows, though? Marvel does have a tendency to bring back forgotten characters from past projects. After all, speaking of The Incredible Hulk, apparently the Abomination is going to be in Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings. So, maybe we will get to see one of my favorite screen ladies again?
Unfortunately, Empire Records does not start with Corey. Instead, Lucas (Rory Cochrane) is informed by Gina (Renée Zellweger) that their boss at the title store, Joe (Anthony LaPaglia), has given him the august task of being in charge of closing. Lucas, being the unthinking person he is, proceeds to break every rule Joe gives. Lucas smokes one of the boss’s cigars, plays with the off-limits drum set, and, most importantly, absconds to Atlantic City with $9,000 of the store’s money. Now, Lucas is not necessarily a thief. What prompts him to commit the theft is when he discovers a picture of the store’s front overlayed with a chain music business known as Music Town. Fearing that himself and his friends and co-workers were out of the job, he takes the money and loses it all gambling. The next day, Joe arrives and discovers that the money is missing. When he confronts Lucas, the younger man explains his actions by pointing to the supposed fact that they were all about to lose their jobs. Joe is angry, not necessarily because of the stolen funds, but because Lucas behaved rashly. As it turns out, Joe had been storing the money to buy out the store and keep everyone employed. From here, things get muddled. There are about eight different subplots going on that have virtually nothing to do with the missing money other than the fact that they all involve Joe’s employees. The film wanders aimlessly between them because, I guess, they had to find some way of padding out an hour and a half. I am not going to bother explaining them all because that would be tedious. Instead, I will hone in on Corey because I like Liv Tyler. She is a studious girl, and she hopes to go to Harvard after her senior year of high school. On the particular day the film is set on, one of her musical crushes, Rex Manning (Maxwell Caulfield), is signing autographs at the store. When he arrives, at the first possible moment, she basically throws herself at him, though is scared off when he appears too willing to go through with their liaison. This is all much to the chagrin of the artsy A.J. (Johnny Whitworth), who is in love with her. When he finally musters up the courage to confess his feelings to her (which has to take place at a certain time, for some reason), he has the poor timing of doing so following her upsetting encounter with Rex. Being terribly confused, she is in no position to return his affections, and rebuffs him. It is also about this time that everything starts falling apart for all the other side characters, but Corey has one more revelation at the crucial moment: her sharp academic focus is owed to the fact that she takes speed. The pills come spilling out when their container is ripped from her hands by Gina in the climactic scene, and it is her contribution to everyone connected to the store coming clean with something about themselves. Catharsis passed, they all vow to throw a fund-raising concert to raise the cash for Joe to buy the store. While the band plays on the balcony overlooking the entrance, Corey and A.J. have a reconciliation on the rooftop. A.J. even says that he plans on going to art school in Boston so that they can be closer to each other. It does not have anything to do with the store being saved, but it is there nonetheless.
The Corey-A.J. relationship in Empire Records is one small thread. What this should have been is a television series. One could see all these half-baked (and I mean that pharmaceutically as well, if you catch my drift) sub-plots being played out over a season on Netflix, or some other streaming service. As they did not have such things in the 1990s, we get them all crammed into an hour and a half movie. With such a short window of time, it is difficult to care too much about any one of them. Perhaps the worst, and most representative character of the film’s attention deficit disorder (ADD), is Mark (Ethan Embry). He does not appear to have two brain cells to rub together, and yet is charged with the responsibility of being an employee at a busy record store? He flits from story-line to story-line like a crazed, pot-brownie eating, Gwar enthusiast lunatic. He has no emotional investment in anything, and seems unaffected one way or the other if the store closes. I would say he is our entrée into everything that happens, but he maintains the same vapid look throughout. One of the more emotionally disturbed (though they all are in some way) characters is Debra (Robin Tunney). She is distraught about, well, everything. When she shows up for work, she decides to give herself a buzz cut, and acts like a jerk to everyone else. Mark, of course, takes it all in stride, even when it is revealed that she had attempted suicide. No, thank you. The only thing that gets him to another level of empty enthusiasm is seeing Gwar perform on television, a band that dresses like devils, by the way. That is a Catholic no, for me.
Speaking of empty-headed, I will praise one character in Empire Records: Lucas. I cannot, as a Catholic, condone him taking the money in the first place, no matter how noble were his intentions. Still, there seems to be a willingness to let go of attachments to outcomes and let the universe reveal its purpose to him. This is not an easy skill to master, spiritually speaking. I can intellectualize about it until you get sick of reading. The oft repeated phrase in Christian Faith circles that jives with what I am talking about is, “To let go and let God.” I have touched on this from different angles in recent reviews. It is difficult to completely offer up the things we want from God, especially when we have clear ideas of how we desire them to look in the end. It could very well be that whatever it is you wish for perfectly aligns with what God sees for you, and when that happens it is an amazing blessing. Be thankful for those instances. Most of the time, though, no matter how much we tell ourselves that we have offered something up to God, there is a part of us still tethered to it that can potentially be disappointed if it does not turn out as we hope. God answers every prayer, and however he does it is for a benefit far greater than we will ever understand this side of the grave. I pray this not only for myself, but for you as well, that we can have a greater acceptance of this reality. While Lucas certainly does not see his actions through a Christian lens, he patiently awaits the outcome of his actions. That is something we could all learn to do better.
Empire Records, by the way, is one of the most 1990s movies to ever 1995. But I prefer others. The plot of the film is Joe saving the store. Everything else that happens has virtually nothing to do with that outcome. If you can handle such directionless-ness, then go for it. Otherwise, I say check out PCU (1994).