I’m not sure exactly what I expected anymore before I watched this film, because Empathy Inc. shatters expectations and defies explanations. This film is the second feature collaboration of director Yedidya Gorsetman and writer Mark Leidner, who first teamed up for the 2014 comedy Jammed, which I will admit I haven’t seen, but I will be checking it out because as a writing/directing team, these two knocked Empathy Inc. out of the park.
It’s tough for me to wrap my head around what genre Empathy Inc. belongs to, although for the most part I typically don’t find that critical when I enjoy something, for the sake of this review it’s probably a good idea for me to peg it somewhere. It played at Brooklyn Horror Film Festival, and there are some elements to the film that are indeed horrifying, but there is also a significant sci-fi element to the film as well. Additionally, it could be described as sort of a neo-noir mystery. One thought I had while watching it was that the best elevator pitch description for Empathy Inc. would be A Mumblecore Total Recall meets Freaky Friday by way of Being John Malkovich, which may sound a bit over the top.
“Unlike regular virtual reality, you can see, smell, touch, and taste everything in the XVR…”
The film itself is not that over the top, considering the subject matter. It is very nuanced and travels at a steady pace to get to it’s shock and awe, which it has by the truckload. The film centers around a failed Silicon Valley investor guy, Joel. His big breakthrough start-up deal crashed and burned in a major way, leaving him a marked man in the tech world. So, with his proverbial tail between his legs, he moves back East to the Riverdale section of the Bronx to live with his wife, Jessica’s parents. They pretty much immediately start nagging both of them to figure out what they’re going to do to recover from this and of course when they’re going to have children.
Joel has to get away from the incessant in-law nagging, so he goes for a walk and happens upon a bar. He orders a drink and just so happens to run into an old acquaintance of his, Nicolaus Veezy (not sure how this is spelled because the character played by Eric Berryman is only credited by first name, as well as all the other characters) aka Sleazy Veezy. Nicolaus informs Joel that he doesn’t enjoy that nickname anymore and then proceeds to proposition him about a wonderful investment opportunity. It’s XVR, or extreme virtual reality.
Unlike regular virtual reality, you can see, smell, touch, and taste everything in the XVR world. This technology could have been used a myriad of ways but Nicolaus and his partner Lester (Jay Klaitz), the engineer behind the tech, decide to create a company called….you guessed it, Empathy Inc. The clientele of Empathy Inc. are well-to-do folks who want to experience what it would be like to live in the shoes of a less fortunate person. The clients experience an appreciation for what they have and are able to go away from the experience feeling even more satisfied with themselves than most rich people are already.
“The script is pure excellence put to paper…”
Joel (Zack Robidas) secretly cons Jessica’s (Kathy Searle) father out of a million dollars to secure an investment in the company. Joel wants to try out the tech, probably because he’s feeling incredibly sorry for himself after the severe blow his life and ego just suffered. Joel experiences life as an older man in a locked room with a black cat for a short time, and afterwards, he feels excellent in his actual life. He’s hooked on XVR and wants to use the machine again, but Nicolaus and Lester are very protective of the tech and say it’s for clients only. Joel sneaks in while they’re not there and this sets off a domino effect of insanity that affects every single person involved.
The film is set in different locations throughout New York City and it feels like a very New York movie. Shot in beautiful but gritty black and white, the film emphasizes the noir aspects of the plot. The script is pure excellence put to paper (or to a computer screen, whatever) and I’m still surprised that anyone could have such awesome ideas. I sincerely applaud Gorsetman, Leidner, and the excellent cast and crew of Empathy Inc. It was riveting without being too flashy, and sci-fi without being too emotionless. It’s the best of all worlds, that like it’s characters gets to live in a lot of different bodies before the credits roll. Please check it out when it comes to your town.
Empathy Inc. Directed by Yedidya Gorsetman. Written by Mark Leidner. Starring Zack Robidas, Kathy Searle, Jay Klaitz, Eric Berryman.
10 out of 10 Stars