Click on a letter to browse through the reviews on this site:
RUNNING ON EMPTY (1988)
Starring: Christine Lahti, River Phoenix, Judd Hirsh
Directed by Sidney Lumet
Arthur and Annie Pope (Hirsch and Lahti) committed a serious crime in 1971. They bombed a government funded napalm laboratory which was helping to aid the Vietnam war which they were actively against and protested it passionately. However, they assumed the building was empty when they blew it up, not knowing about the janitor inside. He was blinded and paralyzed, and the FBI have been hunting the Pope's ever since, who have been on the run. Seventeen years have passed since they began their flee from justice, and with them are their two young sons, seventeen-year-old Danny (Phoenix), and ten-year-old Harry (Jonas Abry). Throughout the years, they have changed homes, towns, jobs, schools, names, and friends more times than they could probably remember. Whenever Arthur senses that they are being trailed closely by the FBI, he packs up his family and heads to the next town to make up a new identity for himself.
That is part of the premise to Lumet's masterful film. The film is really about young Danny experiencing self-conflict about whether to remain with his family, or to leave them and pursue his own dreams which involve music, which he is extremely talented in. The story is about him and his loyalty as a member of his family and about his loyalty to himself and his own dreams. When we first meet the Pope's, they are once again on the run, having been discovered in their current home. Danny sees two cars with suits in them, and quickly alerts his family who don't stick around to see if it might be a false alarm. They pick up and leave, get some cash from friends who where in the same underground movement with them (and still are), and relocate to a new home in a new city. Danny and Harry enlist in new schools where, My records where lost in the move, is their excuse for not having any papers from previous schools with them. Arthur and Annie take up unassuming jobs that wouldn't attract attention to them (Arthur a cook and Annie a doctor's assistant). But Danny is having trouble coping with yet another identity. He hates having his stern father grill him about new information about them and their new alias. He loves his parents devotedly because he knows no other life, but he doesn't want to share their destiny by being a fugitive on the run forever. When Danny's music teacher realizes his amazing gift for playing the piano, he writes up a recommendation for Danny at Julliard. But in order for Danny to register, he must present documents from former schools. On top of all of this, he has found time to spark up a romance with his music teacher's daughter Lorna (played wonderfully by Martha Plimpton), his first ever relationship. Annie soon discovers that Danny has been going to auditions and practicing music ferociously, and is willing to let her son go to follow his own path in life. But Arthur is dead set against it, being that he himself had to break off contact with his own parents and unable to see them except for ten minutes in airport lounges (during the beginning of the film, he is informed that his mother passed away from cancer four weeks earlier). He has gone to painstaking lengths to ensure his family will not be torn apart and refuses to let Danny go. Not out of spite, but out of love.
The movie is about Danny, but more along the lines of parents accepting that their children do not deserve to be hustled into their way of life. The movie doesn't have a political agenda and thrives because of it. Though each sub-plot is crafted intelligently and with care, the story (by Noami Foner), never strays away from its original purpose. It masterfully allows the first two thirds of the film to allow us to get to know Danny and care for him. We see his dormant talents being wasted away on other people's piano's and in music class after school. He can't commit to anything because nothing is for certain, and buying a piano is out of the question. But he never complains and never resists his parents affection.
The final half of the film is about Arthur and Annie's struggle to grip the fact that Danny has grown up, and they can't hold onto him forever. In the scene's most touching moment, Annie arranges a visit with her father, who she hasn't seen in fourteen years. There is great pain and heartache in this scene, as both can't possibly resolve their rocky past in such a short amount of time. She asks if Danny can stay with him and her mother so he can attend college, but the cost is that she would never see him again (I guess I'm about to learn how it feels she tearfully says at one moment). This is the heart of the movie in my opinion, as Annie makes the ultimate sacrifice for her son, paying him back for the sacrifices he made for her.
The performances are all equally impressive, especially by Phoenix, who received a Best Supporting Actor nomination for his performance (though it is a leading performance, he was obviously placed in the category to help ensure a win. Kevin Kline won that year for his delightful performance in A FISH CALLED WANDA). He displays what most teenagers experience while growing up, such as confusion and loyalty to family. The love story is handled honestly and with incredible consideration for both the audience and the characters. Lahti is wonderfully graceful and honest in her role, and the scene in the restaurant with her father is her most touching moment, as well as a scene where she walks into the school's music room where Danny is playing, and without saying a word joins him in playing the piano. Hirsh is gripping in his role, and it is a difficult role to pull off. He is not a horrible person, but a person who believed in the causes he fought for. Perhaps the film could raise questions about the consequences of those who did commit such acts in the 60's, but the main focus of the story is about this family and letting go in the name os displaying true love.
Lumet weaved together a complex and touching story, and proved once again that he belongs up there with the great ones, such as Billy Wilder and Martin Scorsese. He doesn't give in to clichés that usually lace family dramas, but develops his characters thoroughly and with thought and consideration, so we can relate to and understand them and their actions. But more importantly, so we can understand what is going on in their hearts. A memorable drama, and one of my all time favorite films.
My Grade: A