May 17, 2005
Running on Empty (1988)
Grade: 64/100

Director: Sidney Lumet
Stars: Christine Lahti, River Phoenix, Judd Hirsch

What it's about. Leftist married couple Lahti and Hirsch do not use their real names, and are paid for their labors in cash. This is because back in 1971, they bombed a napalm laboratory and are wanted by the FBI. Although often on the move, they manage to raise a family, which includes high school senior Phoenix and preadolescent son Jonas Abry. Phoenix mutually falls for Martha Plimpton, and wants to stop running from the law.

How others will see it. Although the bombing crippled a janitor "who wasn't supposed to be there," our activist couple have since led respectable lives. Technically, they continue to break laws concerning identity fraud and social security payments, however, the viewer is made sympathetic to their plight. The kids, who change identities and friends every few months, are even more sympathetic, since they had nothing to do with the bombing, and their futures are limited while associated with their outlaw parents.

The story seems a bit simplified. The parents quickly find cash-paying jobs in their new residence, and always seem to have money to pay their bills. They rent a house and not an apartment. Meanwhile, Phoenix is promptly proclaimed a child prodigy by his music teacher, who has a friendly daughter that takes a strong interest in him.

Of course, it is usual for films to take shortcuts to concentrate on the heart of the story. In the case of Running on Empty, it's about Phoenix, the cute, smart, wide-eyed kid. Will he get to keep his interesting girlfriend? Will he attend the prestigious Juilliard? One thing he won't do is develop acne.

How I felt about it. The movie is better than it should be. Puppy love has been done to death, with no angle possibly left unexplored. As for Juilliard, presented here as the ticket to successful adulthood (not necessarily true) the problem of those missing transcripts hardly raises the blood pressure. Friction between father and son arises over the classic theme of independence, but this is even less of interest.

Yet Running on Empty is undeniably good, and is a rewarding experience. Is it because Phoenix unexpectedly dons a straw hat while skirting his girlfriend's interrogation? Because the classical music teacher plays Madonna's "Lucky Star," and the class begins to whoop and dance? Is it because Hirsch never softens his tough love front until the final scene? It's all these little things that make the movie work, if only as a set of occasionally pleasing fragments.

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