Director: Sidney Lumet
Screenplay: Naomi Foner
Producers: Griffin Dunne, Amy Robinson
Starring: River Phoenix, Judd Hirsch, Christine Lahti
BBFC Certification: 15
Duration: 111 min
Very recently on this website I wrote two seperate reviews singing the praises of Sidney Lumet and River Phoenix respectively. In the name of diversity, I should perhaps consider leaving a longer gap before reviewing Running on Empty, the film that brought this great director and great actor together for the first and only time. But it’s such a remarkable and oft overlooked film that I decided what the hell!
Running on Empty is a fantastic film from whatever angle you come at it. It is directed with trademark skill and subtlety by Lumet, it is flawlessly acted by a cast who all give what must rank among their best performances and it has one of the most beautifully written, delicately balanced and intelligently structured screenplays I’ve ever come across. Running on Empty follows the story of Annie and Arthur Pope (Christine Lahti and Judd Hirsch), left-wing radicals who bombed a napalm factory in the early 70s and accidentally blinded a janitor who was not supposed to be on the premises at the time. Forced to go on the run with their two year old child Danny in tow, the Popes have been evading the FBI for the last fifteen years, moving from town to town and changing their names with the help and financial support of an underground network. Danny (River Phoenix) and his younger brother Harry (Jonas Abry) have never known any other life and have become as adept as their parents at assuming new identities and starting again in a string of new homes. However, the talented Danny is reaching college age and his desire to further pursue his prodigious piano skills, as well as a blossoming relationship with his music teacher’s daughter (Martha Plimpton), lead him to question where his life is going.
To say more about the plot of Running on Empty would be to spoil the captivating way in which it unfolds. But while it is undoubtedly a strong story, it is the way in which it is told and the warmth and believability of the characters which make it so special. The script was written by Naomi Foner, the mother of actors Jake and Maggie Gyllenhaal, and at the risk of repeating myself it’s one of the finest scripts I’ve ever come across. The story on paper does not sound like much and, in fact, sounds like a potentially melodramatic, low-rent TV movie. But Foner does not take the story down any cliched routes and instead turns out a finely nuanced and extraordinarily thorough examination of a small handful of characters. Rather than make any one of them the lead, Foner flits between Danny, Arthur and Annie whenever their particular viewpoint is needed in the plot and, accordingly, the film changes in tone from family drama, coming of age teen romance, political drama and the story of an exceptional musical talent. This trajectory takes in an amazing amount of themes and is able to embrace all of them without being glib or rushed. I think this is perhaps the reason that Running on Empty is not widely considered the classic it so obviously is. There is so much in this film that it is not easy to pigeonhole in one genre and the prospect of such complexity, even when it is achieved with such effortless and engaging simplicity, tends to make casual viewers uneasy. Conversely, most plot synopses of Running on Empty (including my own inadequate attempt) make the film sound like just another sticky, sloppy teen film or emotionally manipulative weepie. It is far more than that but when it comes to the ever decreasing attention span of the film industry, a snappy synopsis is crucial.
Which is a shame, because Running on Empty has enormous potential to please both the arthouse and commercial crowd. It is fiercely intelligent yet narratively engaging and suspenseful. And ultimately, I think it is one of the most genuinely moving films I’ve ever seen. Crucial in achieving this is the viewer developing a bond with the Pope family and, while their dialogue is beautifully written, this is largely down to Lumet’s direction and the actors’ performances. Say the words “family drama” to most people and they will immediately think of shrieking arguments, slapped faces and relationships in turmoil. There is none of this with the Pope family. They understand and respect each other completely and Lumet is careful to show this from the outset as the film opens with them acting as a well-oiled operation in order to leave their latest home and evade the FBI. There is the odd raised voice here and there but for the most part what we are shown is warmth, tenderness and love which is implicit and never overtly sentimentalised. In one of the film’s most unashamedly joyous and touching scenes, we witness Annie’s birthday party. Danny invites his new girlfriend Lorna and she is immediately accepted into the fold and initiated into the family rituals that surround celebrations. It culminates in a beautiful moment in which the whole family dance and sing together to James Taylor’s Fire and Rain (a song used to tremendous emotional effect at various parts of the film). Again, it sounds horrendously cheesy but it’s actually utterly refreshing to see a rare moment on screen of a family just enjoying each other’s company and having fun.
Lumet draws incredible performances out of virtually every single actor in his film. In the key roles of the family, every cast member is spot on. Even little Jonas Abry, who appears in the smaller role of little brother Harry, is astonshingly convincing. His goofy horseplay with his father at times feels like a genuine home movie moment captured completely spontaneously. Watch his acting in the scene in which he places an exaggeratedly large, fake safety pin through his nose for proof of this kid’s talent. Christine Lahti is superbly sensitive and warm as mother Annie while Judd Hirsch almost steals the film as the conflicted, hot-headed but good-natured father Arthur, in whom the radical spirit clearly still burns bright but is kept shielded by his own guilt and fear of capture. But almost inevitably it is River Phoenix who impresses the most in what surely would have been one of many, many Oscar nominated performances had he lived to further grace the screen with his uniquely captivating presence. As Danny, Phoenix perfectly captures the mixture of shyness and self-assurance inherent in a teenage boy of above average intelligence. Most actors of Phoenix’s age would have overplayed this part like crazy, accentuating the emotions to the point of embarrassment. But Phoenix was never one to overact or narcissistically hog the screen and instead he spends much of the film hiding nervously beneath his fringe, as befits a boy who has been hiding from the world his entire life.
Two further performances cannot go unmentioned. I was unsure what to make of the news that 80s staple Martha Plimpton was in Running on Empty as I’ve always found her a rather odd and occasionally over-forceful presence but here she excels herself. As the intelligent, quirky and bold Lorna, Plimpton totally convinces as Danny’s kindred spirit and their romance develops with wonderful realism (it obviously helped that Plimpton and Phoenix were romantically attached in real life). In an interesting aside, it is this romantic subplot in which we find the only cliche in Running on Empty. For a period during the 80s and 90s, it seemed every American teenage girl had a tree outside her window which allowed potential suitors to gain easy access to their rooms undetected by parents. Quite why parents continued to put their impressionable female offspring in rooms adjacent to these convenient natural ladders remains a mystery to this day. Needless to say, River Phoenix is able to take advantage of such a phenomenon in this film too. It’s an endearing lapse into the familiar in a very unsusual script and, in a way, it is a charming inclusion, situating the film squarely in its era with a comforting concession to commercial expectation.
The other performance I wanted to highlight lasts for a matter of minutes but is one of the most moving in the entire film. It is the performance of Steven Hill as Donald Patterson. It’s difficult to say more without spoiling the plot but you’ll know the scene when it arrives. He’s exquisite throughout his brief time on screen but watch what he does in the final few seconds of his scene. It completely knocked me out and was one of numerous occasions when I felt tears prickling at the bottom of my eyes. Lumet showed his skill at drawing remarkable performances out of what essentially amount to cameos with the treasurable performances he obtained from Beatrice Straight and Ned Beatty in Network (1976). Steven Hill’s work here ranks alongside those precious cinematic snippets.
By this point I feel I might be gushing but Running on Empty is certainly a film that justifies it. Utterly engaging, uplifting, moving and constantly enjoyable, it’s a movie that deserves wider recognition. Naomi Foner’s towering screenplay was nominated for an Oscar and, despite some strong competition from Big and Rain Man (which won the award), I would certainly have picked it as my choice. I can enthusiastically recommend Running on Empty to just about anyone, such is its broad appeal. As I stated at the beginning of this review, it’s a wonderful film from whichever angle you come at it. So pick your angle and get stuck in!