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Empire Records: The Kids Are All Right (?)

In an interview on his webzine called Unhappy, Dazed and Confused alumni Wiley Wiggins talked about a script for a movie he had been given just after Linklater’s picture was released. Laughingly, he described it as the worst piece of commercial sellout material imaginable, something that pandered to the masses and the thirteen year old girl in everybody. He passed on the script and went on to do Love And A .45 among other projects and pretty much disappeared from public view.

The script, of course, was for Empire Records. One of his Dazed costars (Rory "Slater" Cochrane) went on to do the film, and whether or not Wiggins’ judgment was sound will be a "what if" question. But here’s the strange thing: while the movie died a quick and deserved death in the theaters, it was brought to shrieking life on video, leaving me to wonder just how much thirteen year old girl exists out there in the world.

Here’s the basic story. Lucas (Cochrane) is working at Empire Records, the hippest place to work in town. He discovers that his paycheck palace is in danger of being bought out by a mighty chain, so he does was any sensible twentysomething would do: take the stores’ available cash (some $9,000 worth) and head for Atlantic City pronto to double or maybe even triple the money. Oh yeah, and he drives a motorcycle too.

Of course, Lucas bombs out. Badly. Penniless, he returns to the store the next morning to face the wrath of Joe (name here), the store manager. Joe has a soft spot in his heart for people with a soft head, and his punishment is to have Cochrane sit on the sofa in his office while he tries to figure out what to do with him. Lucas does this, but as time goes on it’s increasingly difficult for him to stay put because Empire Records is such a wacky place to be and work, something is always happening.

Johhny (A.J. Whitworth) and Mark (name here) are the first ones to discover Lucas in the morning, and they go right to work opening the store. This involves music. Lots and lots of music. Empire Records is half teen angst and damn-the-man comedy, half MTV promotional video, and this scene sets the tone for things to come. One of the next to arrive is (name here) (Live Tyler), another employee of the store. Johhny has a problem: he has to tell Liv he loves her by a certain time today or all is lost. "Huh?" Mark asks, brain power at minimum. Well, that’s life at the store.

Pulling up on the Vespa is Deb (Robin Tunney), who has a middle finger for the world and a bigger one for herself. The first thing she does is storm into the bathroom-after giving turboslut Gina (Renee Zellweger) her digit-and go to work getting rid of her pesky hair. Yikes. She comes out looking like every parent’s worst nightmare and proudly displays razor cuts across her wrists made by… a Lady Bic. Ha-ha, that wacky Empire Records.

But best of all, today is "Rex Manning Day." "Huh?" Marks asks again, befuddled. "Oooh stop it! Oh Rexy, you’re so sexy!" Deb squeals falsetto-style. Manning is an over-the-hill crooner who reads like a cross between Bryan Adams and Rod Stewart, only with David Hasselhoff’s cape. He’s the second-best thing in the movie, a guy who has no idea how uncool he is to our generation. That Empire Records gang…

But hold the phone. Shoplifter alert! Warren Beatty (Brendan Sexton, Jr.) has just swiped a bunch of CD’s and is making out like a bandit with Lucas on his tail. Lucas has obviously done this a million times and coolly runs him down as Zellweger jumps on the mike and explains that the shoplifter will be prepared as a delicacy for the other shoppers watching the chase with bemusement. "Just another tasty treat from the gang at Empire Records!" she chirps happily while Beatty meets his Waterloo.

Okay, got that so far?

Hold on, there’s more. Tyler is smitten by Rex Manning and wants to lose her virginity to him. Huh? Beatty actually just wants a job. What? Deb is screwed up because Coyote Shivers (what the hell kind of name is that, anyway?) ditched their post-punk paradise, so the gang gives her a mock funeral. Uhhh, it happens, right? Zellweger wants to be a rock singer and does so during the grand music finale. You’re kidding, right? And Mark, after eating a pot brownie, has a daydream that he’s consumed by Oderus Urungus and the rest of GWAR Yes!

And there’s more, but we won’t go into it here. The really amazing thing to me is that at just under an hour and half there could be this much plot to a movie, yet still have time to do all the musical numbers (at least eight). One of the reasons Empire came back from the dead was because of its soundtrack, packed wall-to-wall with every kind of commercial band you could think of, and they show it off to the fullest.

So in a nutshell, we have this. A very glamorized, fantasy styled look at what it’s like to work in a record store; completely beautiful people (save Debra) that in real life would treat the customers of this store like dirt and therefore sneer themselves out of a job; angst by the bucket (Sexton, Tunney and Zellweger are the prime offenders, although Tyler unconvincingly contributes) and the damn-the-man cry of Lucas as rallying points. Well it, certainly seems like condescending swill on the surface, doesn’t it?

Not exactly. In fact, I liked this movie enough to rent it three times. Here’s something strange as well about this movie: the actors obviously knew it was swill, so they decided to play it different ways. Usually a recipe for total disaster, it works. Cochrane’s cool Zen wisdom is somewhat tempered by his tendency to act without thinking. Zellweger is all sugar and sunshine except for one three minute instance where she completely loses it and goes berserk all over Tyler. Mark is happily oblivious to just about everything, a true loose cannon. And Tunney is the best thing in the film. Every scene she appears in, it’s like she’s under review of the Oscar Board. Note to Robin: if you’re reading, I got the perfect script for you. E-mail me and we’ll talk.

Barring the painfully stupid music finale where Zellweger finally struts her pipes while everybody rocks out (I hope they all got very drunk before they did it: I'd hate to see myself acting sober like that on film), I completely enjoyed Empire both sober and stoned. Okay, sure it’s stupid. But hearing "Video Killed The Radio Star" in a movie like this as one of the main musical numbers… well, that’s just too ironic. You gotta admire tongue in cheek with that kind of cheekiness. I guess that was director Alan (Pump Up The Volume) Moyle's main touch. Too bad there wasn't more.

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