Saturday, October 10, 2015

On the Lam

Film: Running on Empty
Format: DVDs from personal collection on laptop.

A little more than a week ago, there was a discussion of Oscar category fraud. I bring this up because Running on Empty is a case where this concept rears its ugly head once again. River Phoenix was nominated for Best Supporting Actor for his role in this film, but was evidently bumped down because nothing was going to stop the juggernaut that was Dustin Hoffman for Rain Man. Since the entire movie turns on Phoenix’s character and since he is in more scenes than anyone else, calling him a supporting actor seems like a real stretch.

Like many a movie, Running on Empty explores the very real human issues of loss and separation, but does so by giving us an extreme situation from which to view that situation. The Pope family consists of father Arthur (Judd Hirsch), mother Annie (Christine Lahti), and sons Danny (River Phoenix) and Harry (Jonas Abry). But that’s only for people who really know them. Their lives are nomadic, moving from place to place and putting down temporary roots before leaving virtually everything behind and starting over somewhere else.

This is because years before, Arthur and Annie bombed a napalm laboratory in an effort to end the Vietnam War. What they didn’t know was that a janitor was on-site and was blinded and partially paralyzed in the explosion. Arthur and Annie have been on the run ever since, getting money from former comrades and switching identities at the drop of a hat whenever they feel the heat is getting too close. They then materialize in a new place, make new identities, and cobble together reasons for the lack of the kids’ school records, and life goes on.

This time, though, things have changed. Danny, going temporarily under the name Michael, has suddenly found a place to fit in. The music teacher (Ed Crowley) at his new school discovers that he has real talent on the piano and wants him to audition for Julliard. Danny also meets the teacher’s high school-age daughter Lorna (Martha Plimpton), and the two slowly start to fall for each other. In fact, it’s not too long before Danny confesses his entire nomadic existence to her, and even tells her about his parents’ past and past crime. Danny wants to stay with his parents, but he also wants to have his own life and not feel like he is constantly being punished for a crime that his parents committed.

Like I said at the top, this is a pretty human story. It’s the sort of thing that a lot of parents deal with when a kid moves out and goes to college. But the story puts this issue into deeper focus by giving us a situation where Danny’s potential exile from the family may well be permanent. After all, if his parents are on the run and Danny reveals his past, he’s earned himself an FBI tail for the rest of his life. Danny staying behind doesn’t mean visiting at the holidays and phone calls now and then. It means likely complete separation. This is emphasized by a meeting between Annie and her father (Steven Hill), the first in more than a dozen years.

There are only a couple of obvious ways that Running on Empty can end, and the film is smart enough to give us the least likely by perhaps most emotionally satisfying of those possible endings. What it doesn’t do is give that ending enough time to really breathe. Essentially, the film is a long set up to the ending we’re going to get, and when we get there, it happens in a two-minute scene that is incredibly unsatisfying for everything that we’ve had up to this point. Running on Empty does a beautiful job of creating the characters and making them believable in an unbelievable situation, and then shorts the emotional payoff by wrapping up far too quickly. It simply happens, and it’s a jarring note in what is otherwise a surprisingly engaging film about a common problem in a unique family structure.

It shorts things in other ways, too. Arthur and Annie Pope are the two most interesting characters in the film. We get a good deal of Annie and her motivations and thoughts and very little of Arthur. Arthur could be fascinating, but what we get of him is two-dimensional. He’s paranoid, he worries about his kids, and he wants to keep his family together. And that’s all we have of him. For someone who is evidently motivated by his political philosophy into an extreme lifestyle, all we get is that he sets up food co-ops in the places he moves to. And?

The cast overall is good. Steven Hill has only a single scene, but it’s a damn fine one, and he’s damn fine in it. I was also happy to see Lynne Thigpen on screen, if only for a few minutes. I didn’t recognize her when I saw her, but there’s no disguising that butter-smooth voice. I’d have loved for her to be in it more.

What I think is most interesting here is that Running on Empty could have been a lot of things. Hell, this could have easily been a pre-Tarantino Tarantino film. After all, the characters are certainly there. But it’s not. Instead, it’s a genuine family drama with at least three characters (Danny and Annie Pope and Lorna Phillips) that we come to like and sympathize with. It’s surprising, mostly in good ways. Now if it could just have an ending that didn’t feel like they simply ran out of film.

Why to watch Running on Empty: A very relatable story in extreme circumstances.
Why not to watch: The ending is too abrupt.


  1. I love this movie, one of my favorites. Putting Phoenix in support was ridiculous especially since he didn't win. If he wasn't going to take the prize, as I recall Kevin Kline was the front-runner in Supporting Actor from the start, he at least lost in the proper category.

    Judd Hirsch's character does get shorted but in the time allotted to tell the story all the facets of the family dynamic couldn't possibly be examined and since he had the fewest outside connections to allow us to explore his issues he ended up remaining an enigma.

    Phoenix is brilliant but he is matched every step of the way by Christine Lahti. It still irks me how in a relatively weak performance year for actresses she was ignored at nomination time. She'd be my choice to win despite Glenn Close's brilliance in Dangerous Liasions.

    Glad you mentioned Steven Hill, that restaurant scene is a heart ripper!!!! It's a mini acting class in under ten minutes, both he and Lahti are SO amazing in it. I'm not vastly in favor of one scene nominations but this is one of the rare cases where one would have been justified.

    There's one detail that I think is a sharp piece of perception on either Lumet's part or the casting director or perhaps it was a tandem decision. At first glance it's a stretch to believe that River Phoenix could be Judd Hirsch's son. That is until you take a look at the other members of the family. Phoenix resembles Christine Lahti enough that she could be his mother, also a nice touch that his musical ability is handed down from her, and the young boy playing Harry favors Hirsch so all together they become a believable unit.

    The ending didn't bother me despite its abruptness. Right at the beginning we're shown that life for them is a series of sudden departures and decisions that have to be made on a dime. The one that is made at the end might be one that is regretted but for Danny and for the parents we've learned care for him as much as they do there could be no other. If it hadn't happened then it was imminent and at least at that moment there was a reasonably secure path for him to follow.

    1. See, I think there's more that can be done with Judd Hirsch's character here. I'd have liked more with him, if only a couple of minutes. I get that he's an enigma; I'm just not satisfied with it.

      I also get the idea that their lives are essentially a series of jump cuts, but that doesn't change the fact that the ending feels shorted. I'm not saying I need another 15 minutes, but a couple more for closure would be helpful. I get that the family doesn't really "do" closure, but as a member of the audience, I still want it.

      I haven't seen all of the Best Actress nominations for this year, but of the ones I've seen, Lahti would be a good fit. I won't say where my vote would go at this point, but I can certainly see her over some on the list.

      And yes for the restaurant scene. I love that Steven Hill just barely keeps it together until she gets up from the table and then loses it completely. It sells the scene perfectly, and is a nice bit of foreshadowing for the ending that we get.

  2. I haven't seen this since the late 80s. I remember the ending, but I can't honestly remember what I felt about it.

    I agree he was the lead actor, though.

    1. It's good and worth a revisit if you get the chance. It could have very easily been a film that turned on chases and escaping from the FBI, but it's really nicely character driven.