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With: Zack Robidas, Kathy Searle, Jay Klaitz, Eric Berryman, AJ Cedeno, Charmaine Reedy, Fenton Lawless, Anthony Mangano, Karen Lynn Gorney, Tom Kemnitz Jr.
Written by: Mark Leidner
Directed by: Yedidya Gorsetman
MPAA Rating: NR
Running Time: 96
Date: 09/13/2019

Empathy, Inc. (2019)

3 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

Reality Wreck

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

It seems as if the smaller the budget on a science fiction movie, the more the movie has to rely on actual ideas. The recent films Luz and Freaks, as well as the new Empathy, Inc. may seem like a kind of exciting new wave, but they are merely proof that good ideas continue to exist, despite the dominance of big budgets and visual effects, sequels and reboots. Written by Mark Leidner and directed by Yedidya Gorsetman, Empathy, Inc. advertises its low-rent look right from the start, with its wonderful throwback black-and-white cinematography; it looks more like a 1950s monster movie than something lush like The Turin Horse, Ida, or Roma.

As it begins, Joel (Zack Robidas) and his wife Jessica (Kathy Searle) have left Silicon Valley after Joel's latest startup completely fell apart and lost millions; now they are living with Jessica's pushy parents, who are urging them to buy a house across the street and have kids. While avoiding an uncomfortable dinner-table conversation, Joel heads to a bar and runs into slick, confident Nicolaus (Eric Berryman). Nicolaus informs Joel that he's got a pretty good little startup going and is looking for a bit more seed money.

He takes Joel for a demonstration, and to meet his bearded, troll-like programmer partner Lester (Jay Klaitz); they have made a virtual reality setup that allows people to see how the less fortunate live, to provide perspective. ("My life isn't so bad after all.") Hence the title. Joel is impressed, and he decides to talk Jessica's parents into giving up their nest egg and invest, certain that such a product will pay off. But then strange things happen and doubt sets in; he sneaks back into the facility, takes another test run and discovers that something else is going on, something much darker.

Essentially it's a movie of paranoia, with the stark images and tight angles highlighting Joel's harrowing journey, and his deepening losses. And, even though his character is a Silicon Valley douchebag, he's still somehow relatable. The movie effectively shows him as fallible and human. The performances are rock solid, and for more reasons that I can actually say here, but suffice to say that several of the actors are asked to pull off a certain trick, and they do, brilliantly. It leads up to an absolute gobsmacking delight of an ending.

"Empathy" is a word that seems to be tossed around more often these days, even as we seem to have less and less of it. Empathy, Inc. does play with the concept in an intriguing way, mainly in the form of a homeless woman that initially seems like window dressing but becomes more important. The movie does push us to ask questions about who we care about and why, and how far we'll go to do something to help. Then it smacks us in the face, in the very best way.

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