By Stephanie Zacharek
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By I Used to Be Darker
Once your acne starts to clear up, there's not much reason to see an Allan Moyle movie. Or so it first seems. The Montreal-born director specializes in high-test teenage fantasy, so it's unlikely that anyone with less than a compelling interest in picking out a prom dress or getting a tongue-piercing saw high-schooler Christian Slater shake up an entire town with his underground radio show in Moyle's deceptively simple Pump Up the Volume.
Moyle's new picture, Empire Records, also takes dead aim at the youth market: It's stuffed with the anxieties, hijinks and unhappy love lives of half a dozen kids who work at a doomed record store, and the soundtrack rocks on with the Cranberries, Toad the Wet Sprocket, Cracker and Edwyn Collins, among others. But while Moyle's energetic fairy tales speak directly to adolescence and growing up, the sweetness and skill in them--and their sly insight--might deserve a broader audience. Like the scary, hard-edged Kids and the ditzy hit Clueless, Empire Records is an anthem for youth and a wake-up call for their elders, albeit a highly processed one.
Twenty-eight-year-old Carol Heikkinen's characters don't tax the brain, but they make teenage sense. Squeaky-clean, Harvard-bound Corey (Liv Tyler) decides to throw herself at a vain, fading pop idol (Maxwell Caulfield) when he makes a promotional visit to the store. Gina (Renee Zellweger) hides her insecurities beneath aggressive sexuality. Stoic deep thinker Lucas (Rory Cochrane) has blown the previous day's receipts in Atlantic City. Embittered Debra (Robin Tunney) has just attempted suicide, and now she's shaved her head. A skinny wannabe who calls himself "Warren Beatty" (Brendan Sexton) bursts into the place waving a gun. Lovesick A.J. (Johnny Whitworth) agonizes about art school. All this in one work shift.
Meanwhile, funky Empire Records ("Since 1959") is about to be swallowed by a big chain with a dress code and rules against dancing on the job. Only the store's besieged owner, Joe (Anthony LaPaglia), who's also the kids' idealized surrogate father (hey, he's got a drum set in the office), stands between Empire and oblivion at the hands of yuppie scum.
The goofy, comic trip from crisis to wish fulfillment may be a little too easy for this movie. Heikkinen and Moyle see to it that every character has an epiphany and that every problem has a solution, and by the time we get to the impromptu midnight party that will save the day, grownups may feel they've been had. I'm not so sure about kids: Empire Records shows how teenagers pull together and help each other in the absence of adults--how they create their own families, really--and the power to do just that is the story's secret weapon. If everything comes up roses in the end (this is a fairy tale, after all), at least we've seen the hardship of planting the garden.
Moyle had something to say about free speech and the meaning of community in Pump Up the Volume, and he deals with empathy and understanding here. The packaging may seem a little slick and empty-headed, but the message is real enough.
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