A review requested by Phil Wiese, with thanks for donating to the Second Quinquennial Antagony & Ecstasy ACS Fundraiser.

I am tempted to say that nobody has ever gotten Empire Records right, but that of course smacks of unbridled arrogance: for why I would I say such a thing, if not because I thought that I was to be the first? But still, the film's reception has almost invariably fallen into two camps, both of them much too strident. One held the critics at the time of its 1995 release, who despaired of it as a uniquely bad entry in the "teens hang out and listen to the music of the day" genre that hadn't quite set its hooks in the way it would by the end of the decade, and acted like this was the most soulless piece of shit that had ever been built around adolescents. The other held and holds people who came to movie as adolescents themselves, generally but not exclusively in the mid-'90s, who regard this as one of the era's most engaging, funny, true teen movies, with one of the best soundtracks. Possibly because basically nobody saw it, Empire Records has much more of a rabid cult following than any other movie of this sort that I can name. Think of it this way: since everybody agrees that Clueless is an obviously great film (and I would not be surprise if some of the extra hostility towards Empire Records owed to the lingering aura of Clueless - they came out three months apart), there's no need to latch onto it and defend it passionately. For Empire Records, there is.

That is, there would be, if it was good enough to deserve defending, which I can't say that it is. But I'll come down on the side of the cultists anyway: Empire Records is more fun than not, and too easygoing in most ways to feel particularly ill-disposed towards it when the fun dries up. Plus, time has had its inevitable effect on the soundtrack, wrapping what was, by all means, a fairly calculated list of alt-rock tracks at the zenith of alt-rock's popularity ("Til I Hear It from You" by Gin Blossoms, an unavoidable Top 40 hit for months, was written for the film and served as the soundtrack album's lead single) in a shiny patina of nostalgia. There's not a song here that wouldn't have made me run out of the room if it came on when I was 14; now it's just one pleasantly dated splash of '90s nostalgia after another, just like how some of those generic '50s rock musicals have come to seem like wonderful, rich time capsules. Maybe that's just me.

And Empire Records is nothing if not a time capsule. Screw the soundtrack, there's not one single aspect of the movie that doesn't proudly bear the imprint of the middle 1990s, that time when everybody cared more than absolutely everything else about authenticity and individual expression, while every element of public life was moving in the opposite direction, towards corporatised homogeneity and ironic detachment (we would later resolve this social tension, in the United States at least, by collectively deciding that corporate homogeneity was the bee's knees). Empire Records is right in the mushy center of that adrift period, celebrating its oddball, misfit teen protagonists for declaring their personal taste in the form of major label recording artists working in an increasingly rigid generic framework. It's the story of a local indie record shop fighting to resist takeover from a major national chain (ironically, indie record shops are just about the only kind that still exists, ever since online shopping dealt the killing blow to Borders and Tower and the like), with the help of all its employees, busily wearing flannel and layers and all that shit.

But mostly, it's about one unusually tumultuous day in the life of Empire Records, a Delaware store preparing for the arrival of '80s teen idol turned fading rock star Rex Manning (Maxwell Caulfield). Things start at midnight, when the erratic weirdo Lucas (Rory Cochrane), overawed by the responsibility of closing the store for the first time, discovers papers in the manager's office revealing the imminent sale of Empire to Music Town, a faceless national chain that's very clearly supposed to be Tower Records. With more than $9000 in cash from the day's business, Lucas has the brilliant idea to head to an Atlantic City craps table and turn that cash into enough money to buy Empire and turn it into a music commune or something, I'm not sure what. And he gets off to an astoundingly good start, but of course he loses all of it.

That proves to be a surprisingly small deal over the course of the rest of the movie, with all of the characters more concerned with Rex Manning coming. Those being noisy goofball Mark (Ethan Embry, in his last performance when he was still going by his birth name, Ethan Randall), sexual libertine Gina (Renée Zellweger), depressed and clearly borderline-suicidal Deb (Robin Tunney), peppy overachiever Corey (Liv Tyler), the only person working at Empire who actually likes Rex Manning, and A.J. (Johnny Whitworth), who doesn't have a clear personality trait. They're all basic stock characters, naturally, some of them more evocatively fleshed-out than others (Deb, especially, feels like an approximation of what a '90s emo kid was like designed by someone who'd only heard about them thirdhand), and all of them reasonably well-performed. Though I think it's not only my adult-leaning sympathies that cause me to suggest that the only genuinely terrific character and performance is Anthony LaPaglia's Joe, the store manager who is revealed in the course of the film to be the kindly father figure to all the rest.

The film was written by Carol Heikkinen, an actual music store veteran, which suggests that most of what we see has a more-than-passing relationship to the cultures that form when a group of disparate-but-not-too-diverse teenagers are all thrown together, sharing nothing but a love of music, and bored out of their minds on account of being teenagers working retail. Or perhaps it's the fantasy version of what those kids would want their job to be like - impromptu dance parties, relaxed customers who are totally on-board with the goofy, irreverent shit the employees are up to, a boss whose response to an employee losing $9000 is to be resignedly disappointed rather than setting the employee on fire, and so on. It's a very broad, almost cartoonish movie in its behavior, certainly compared to something like Richard Linklater's Dazed and Confused (with which it shares Rory Cochrane, and an overall vibe; it's hard for me to imagine this movie existing if that one didn't), which has a much more grounded, docu-realist style, or Kevin Smith's Clerks (which similarly looks at the way that retail employees try to keep themselves entertained during the workday), which comes closer to Empire Record's sense of sardonic humor than Dazed, but hasn't the budget to go as big.

This does get a bit wearing eventually. The film exists in two cuts, one of 90 minutes and the other of 107, and the longer one actually remains lively longer in my eyes, mostly because it has more variety in what it depicts (and feels more like it has a story), but both eventually hit a point where the samey-ness gets to be too much, particularly around Ethan Embry's annoying performance of an annoying character. It's a hang-out movie with characters who aren't quite well-defined enough to justify hanging out with them for as long as the movie obliges us to. At the very least, it weirdly backloads a lot of its character material such that it's only after we've grown slightly bored with these people that we learn what's interesting about them. It also badly mismatches tones: creating a fake funeral to cheer up the sad Deb (it makes sense in context), an unexpected MASH homage that I don't think the film even realises it's  up to, and in so doing attempting to seriously grapple with teen depression and suicidal ideation without having remotely built up the characters enough to get away with it; bringing in drug addiction in a way that it very obviously can't find a good way to deal with, so it just drops it; adding a gun threat that would never, ever have found its way into the movie if it was made five years later, and is too tone-deaf and weird to be in the movie even as it is.

No, Empire Records is at its best when it's just laying back, and evoking the evergreen pleasure of listening to music with some people who, might as well call 'em friends, because they're all you've got. Plenty of movies have done that, and many of them have more accomplished filmmaking, better-written characters, and cleaner plots. But then, a certain "who am I? what's going on?" smudginess was such a quintessential part of 1990s pop culture that I think the fact that Empire Records doesn't really have answers to those questions only adds to its appeal as such an enormously '90s artifact. Besides, no matter how calculated that soundtrack might be, there's no faking the heart of it: characters this loopy aren't written cynically. It's a sweetheart of a movie, enough to make up for its clattering screenplay, even if it's really not nearly enough to make the film anything like a classic.