By Alex Paterno
Imagine having more money and power than you probably have right now. The sort of job where you spend other people’s money on other people’s dreams and make a bundle for yourself in the process. Now imagine that being ripped away from you without warning or recourse. An investment turns sour and you become the fall-guy so your employer can save face. At your absolute lowest, wouldn’t you look for any opportunity to restore your reputation and your riches? That’s the premise for Empathy, Inc., the sophomore effort of writer/director Yedidya Gorsetman.
As a premise, it’s fairly grounded while not being overplayed. Joel loses his job and his fortune, and is forced to move across the country with his wife to live with her parents. He quickly runs in with an old associate and is presented with a new investment opportunity, a virtual reality startup.
Smartly, he wants to see the product in action before investing or seeking investors. It is, for him, a seemingly life-changing experience. What comes next is an engaging story, but not a fully compelling one.
Most simply stated, this is a thematically muddled, visually unremarkable experience. The premise of the titular company, Empathy, Inc., is to give the wealthy a way to experience poverty and come to understand the plight of the less fortunate. This is completely a set up for a deep commentary on class, apathy, and so much more. Instead, however, we are treated to an oddly shot tale of desperation and revenge. It’s not that the plot isn’t logical, but that it both divorces itself from the original and promising themes only to not go after any others in a way that seems particularly intentional.
That lack of intention permeates other parts of Empathy Inc. as well. Aside from Jay Klaitz (Grand Theft Auto V’s Lester), the performances are acceptable but not quite exceptional for the bulk of the film. It isn’t until the third act that the story opens up in a way that the actors are free to play with the material more, and by then it feels a bit too late. The story drags on for too long and by the time things become legitimately interesting and engaging the story is clearly wrapping up. The runtime is right around 90 minutes, but it felt a bit longer, and not in a good way.
It’s an hour and a half, black and white and bland. Even visually, the movie fails to find its footing. The cinematography feels amateurish, with low angles and an art school quality to it all. The soundtrack was similar, but more forgettable, a score that moved the story but didn’t do much to stick to the viewers mind.
Again, it cannot be overstated that this was an interesting premise. A man loses it all and the light at the end of the tunnel isn’t nearly what it seems. But the thematic drift, lackluster performances, and visual choices make it a much harder sell than it should be. Empathy, Inc. simply fails to build much empathy in the viewer. The characters and their motives are understood, but it’s hard to care. It’s hard to focus on the story being told when a more interesting story was passed was so clearly passed by.