Lucas: The wannabe philosopher who steals $9,000 from his boss and then loses it in Atlantic City while attempting to save the store. A.J.: The artist who’s struggling with his feelings for Corey. Corey: The straight A student who plans to lose her virginity to the visiting super star Rex Manning. Gina: Corey’s more bold and sarcastic best friend. Debra: The punk rocker with a bandage on her arm and a new haircut. Mark: The weird one. Eddie: The pizza guy. Berko: The guitarist. Joe: The boss. This cast of misfits make up the employees of Empire Records, a small vinyl shop that is in danger of being bought out by The Man. Empire Records tells the story of one day in these characters’ lives; one day filled with laughs, drama, and some kick ass music.
The first two thirds of Empire Records is akin to Clerks, in that it is an aimless character study and string of fairly unrelated events. It bounces from character to character, dealing with their subplots, occasionally intertwining them or addressing the main plot of the failing store. The characters are all fairly diverse and unique, represented by not only the sharp-witted and snappy writing, but also the soundtrack choices. The scenes of drama are frequently interrupted by various musical inserts since, obviously, this is a record store. The soundtrack really is fantastic, even to a musical neophyte such as myself, playing everything from AC/DC to a score of indy bands I’ve never heard of.
While the characters aren’t nearly as cliche as the cast of, say, a sitcom or a slasher film, they do fit into certain stereotypes. However, this leaning on cliche doesn’t feel like laziness, which it usually is, but rather a legitimate use of the tropes in order to diversify its rather large cast. Despite its diversity, the large cast can still be a touch distracting –especially in the first half when characters are almost piled on in their introductions– and the movie can feel a little crowded at times. It is a fun crowd to spend time with, though: the cast being nicely split between likeable and loveably hateable.
Unfortunately the third act is where Empire Records starts to fall apart, as the various plot threads meet a cliche ending and the film starts to take on a cheesier feel-good vibe. However, I would make the case that the cheese adds to the the film’s attitude of “Fuck it, we’re young and we’re gonna have fun!”
Empire Records was panned on release for being cliche and predictable, rightfully so, but looking at it in a modern context it seems remarkably more unique. I’ve seen very few films like it, and I’d wager the rest of my generation hasn’t either. In fact there is a surprising lack of teen dramedies out there for millennials, or at least good ones. Thanks to the rise of PG-13, most films that are aimed at us are also aimed at everybody, so we don’t get many films that are truly made for and about teenagers and college kids. Sure, there’s a raunchy comedy here or a spoof film there, but nothing quite like the teen films that came before in both quantity and quality. The 80s were like a golden age in retrospect, with the entire Rat Pack canon of films. The 90s had less, but still its fair share between Empire Records, Clueless, 10 Things I Hate About You, etc… The only popular teen comedy that actually touched on the issues our generation faces/faced was The Perks of Being a Wallflower. So, while Empire Records may have been cliche at the time, I think there’s an audience out there nowadays that could enjoy it, since it’s still a well done film that tackles the universal issues of coming to age.