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Running on Empty
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by Jack Sommersby

"An Execrable Liberal Picture Even if You're a Liberal"
2 stars

A Martin Ritt, of "Conrack" and "Norma Rae," could've have probably given it more girth and dimension.

Two years prior to the family melodrama Running on Empty director Sidney Lumet gave us the fine Los Angeles murder mystery The Morning After, and though the plotting was far from great I heartily recommended it based on the extraordinary lead performances by Jane Fonda and Jeff Bridges alone. Here, with a considerably flawed screenplay I can almost do so based off two more noteworthy performances, but not quite because the material is too innately problematic and, ultimately, repellent. Factually, back in 1970 two members of the left-wing-radical Weather Underground movement set off a bomb in a government-sponsored facility on the University of Wisconsin campus in Madison that was doing developmental research on napalm that was being used in a Vietnam War they feverishly opposed; unknown to them, a physics graduate student was inside the building at the time and subsequently killed, with the husband-and-wife couple managing to elude the law for years thereafter. Fictionally, the movie centers on Arthur and Annie Pope, who we come to learn bombed a plant actually producing the napalm, only instead of a student it's a janitor who was inside at the time and permanently blinded rather than killed, and already we can spot the debuting screenwriter, Naomi Foner, hedging her bets - this blue-collar worker being blinded is apparently worth more forgiveness than an intellectual winding up toe-tagged dead. Ever since the Popes have been on the run from the FBI, and in the present day have two kids in tow, nine-year-old Harry and seventeen-year-old Danny. The family is always on the lam, with the parents having to constantly relocate to different cities when the Feds get too close (is it really plausible that just slightly less than twenty years after the fact G-men would still be actively pursuing them?) and scrounge for crummy cash-paying-only jobs; and the children have it worse, being pulled out of school at a moment's notice, never being able to retain long-term friendships and arriving at a new school under a new alias with no academic records to speak of (Annie has to keep telling the schools the records were lost in a house fire, which is conveniently accepted by the school districts). While we can accept Danny was already born at the time of the bombing, but not Harry, so we can't help but wonder why the Popes would've had another kid knowing the tumultuous life ahead of him. (The kids even have to stay home on the day class pictures are being taken.) Particularly being affected is the high-school senior Danny, a gifted pianist who practices on a soundboard and possesses the same musical gift as his mother who was being recruited by Julliard back when. Without school records his chances of a scholarship are shot, and because he may have to leave her behind he can't even have a girlfriend. It's a horrible life his parents have bestowed upon him, and one the audience naturally chalks up as both callous and selfish on the part of them, yet we're, inconceivably and inexplicably, supposed to see he and Harry are being raised with the kind of liberal values that supercede all this, and you can't help but wonder if the filmmakers have truly lost their collective minds.

Foner's dialogue is decent as far as these things go in that it's like good wallpaper in that it doesn't call undue attention to itself, but essentially Running on Empty is an insufferable flower-child picture without a single valid thought in its head. Danny does strike up a touching romance with his music teacher's rebellious daughter Lorna, and the appealing manner in which River Phoenix, as Danny, and Martha Plimpton, as Lorna, play it it's the centerpiece of the movie, with Phoenix, with long swept-back dark-blonde hair, particularly vibrant. Unlike many of his generation Phoenix doesn't overplay things - he has enough confidence in his abilities as a thespian so as to be "natural" while being vivid enough so as to make a suitable impression. And equalling him is the underrated Lahti who plays Annie with the utmost conviction. It's Annie who tries to get through to Arthur that their children are being punished for something they had no part in, but what's taken her so long to come to this obvious conclusion after so long, you ask? Danny has snuck off to New York City to audition for Julliard and afterward faked the part of a pizza-delivery boy to see his grandmother, Annie's mother, without giving away who he is; and a few scenes later Annie goes against protocol and meets her long-estranged millionaire father (superbly enacted by the always-welcome character actor Steven Hill) at a posh restaurant so as to convince him to take Danny in so he can realize his longtime dream of being a classic pianist, yet because of the inept Foner it's both the best and worst scene in that the two actors are splendid together, and the father comes off as such a caring human being that you want to curse Annie for having put her two young sons through so much for so long when they could have been put in his custody all these years. (In her one-sided thinking, Foner explicitly implies the Popes are superior to Annie's father because they celebrate birthdays with makeshift presents and sing Woodstock's James Taylor's Fire and Rain as opposed to the father's egregiously implied materialism.) And there's a superfluous subplot involving an ex-lover of Annie's, Gus, who tries to recruit Arthur into an armed-robbery scheme, and just to be reprimanded by Arthur who tells his sons "this is not what we're about" so as to to alleviate his past action that left that innocent janitor blind. "Running on Empty" is a mess, and because it hasn't been given much of a visual life despite the effort of that stalwart British cinematographer Gerry Fisher (Wolfen), and the fact that the mediocre Hirsch as Arthur is badly miscast all we have to fall back on are Phoenix and Lahti, and while their commendable work is worthy of high praise they can't alone transcend an utter stinker of a story. Running on Empty is best suited to stoned Berkeley college students spouting inane philosophical poppycock in an arty coffee house.

A full-screen DVD is almost always an insult, which this movie sports.

link directly to this review at https://www.hollywoodbitchslap.com/review.php?movie=33768&reviewer=327
originally posted: 09/16/20 17:56:35
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USA
  02-Sep-1988 (PG-13)

UK
  N/A

Australia
  N/A


Directed by
  Sidney Lumet

Written by
  Naomi Foner

Cast
  Christine Lahti
  Judd Hirsch
  River Phoenix
  Martha Plimpton
  Jonas Abry



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