Title: Running on Empty
Genre: Crime, Drama, Music
Director: Sidney Lumet
Writer: Naomi Foner
Music: Tony Mottola
Cinematography: Gerry Fisher
L.M. Kit Carson
A pair of anti-war radicals on the run with their nuclear family, Annie and Arthur Pope (Lahti and Hirsch) are answerable for a napalm laboratory bombing in the 70s (with one casualty of injury), designated as an anti-Vietnam war protestation, and have been lying low with new identities every once in a while henceforth, until their eldest son Danny (Phoenix) reaches 17, a watershed is laying out, some big decision needs to contemplate by both parties.
In Sidney Lumet’s RUNNING ON EMPTY, River Phoenix starts his transition from child stardom to the perilous adult world, this is his only Oscar-nominated performance, although it is vexingly shunted to the supporting category as the default victim of the Academy’s inherent bias towards tender-year performers or newcomers. Here, he is the bedrock of the movie, a piano prodigy in his making (hereditary from the mother side), but he can not be forever cocooned in his family’s unorthodox lifestyle, and the irony is pretty on the nose, this damning society is rife with all things against Annie and Arthur’s counterculture tenets, yet in the context, there seems to be no better alternative at their disposal, making him a fugitive for something he hasn’t perpetrated? That is just unfair, thus it is almost imperative that Danny must be released from the clutches albeit he is disposed to stick with the status quo in the end before bid farewell to his girlfriend Lorna (Plimpton, very good in her tomboyish, cool-girl complexion), whom he is besotted with.
There is certainly a waft of elitism in the air, Danny is wanted by Juilliard, so how can any compos mentis parents thumb their noses at that proposition, which leaves them no choice but to cut their deeply bonded familial cord, it is very intriguing if there is a sequel to cover Danny’s grown-up years, to see whether his parents’ sacrifice is worthwhile. Apart from that, it is a thoroughly judicious melodrama and Lumet’s low-key directorial gesture successfully elicits Phoenix’s most touching persona as a youngster on the cusp of adulthood, whose caring nature is torn between the obligation to his family and a new world suddenly opens to him.
The whole close-knit cast has done a cracking job, Judd Hirsch, although one can hardly condone that him and Phoenix are cutting from the same family tree from their physical appearances, pulls off an earnest father and an activist with ardor, whereas, Christine Lahti is viscerally sublime in her Janus-faced versatility: checking the scenes where Annie pseudo-cavalierly converses with Danny’s teacher and later a lachrymose tête-à-tête with her own father for the first time in 15 years, that is the testimonial.
Sensibly filleting the more sensitive political agenda (there are worms in their noble cause too) which is concomitant with the story-line, RUNNING ON EMPTY is in essence a well-meaning, good-natured encomium of family value and altruistic sacrifice, only its rushed finale (at least the logistics team could have packed some items in their departing truck considering they are fleeing from the place for keeps), unfortunately hits like a fly in the ointment in a hearty 80s tale, incidentally, if the same story happens in a CCTV-rampant age like today, the family’s fly-by-night endeavor will definitely not last such a protracted length to even face their offspring’s growing pains.