Nov. 21, 2010
Racing with the Moon (1984)
Grade: 56/100

Director: Richard Benjamin
Stars: Sean Penn, Elizabeth McGovern, Nicolas Cage

What it's about. An old-fashioned romance, in the formula of boy meets girl, boy wins girl, boy and girl argue, boy and girl reconcile, boy and girl must separate.

Set in California in 1943. Sean Penn and Nicolas Cage are best friends, and are about to be drafted into the Marines. Penn falls for brunette hottie Elizabeth McGovern, whom he thinks is a rich "Gatsby Girl." Instead she's a maid's daughter.

Nonetheless, McGovern comes through when Penn asks her for money to pay for an abortion needed by Cage's hapless girlfriend, Shawn Schepps. Around this time she realizes that her boyfriend is a clod, but perhaps out of guilt that he might soon die somewhere like Iwo Jima, she forgives him in time to send him off at the train station to basic training. There's an attempt at a feel-good ending, but we suspect that life will not be much fun for Penn and Cage over the next two years.

Patient viewers will see future moviestars in minor roles: Crispin Glover (Back to the Future) is a showoff jerk who aggravates Cage; Michael Madsen (Reservoir Dogs) is a depressive amputee veteran; and Dana Carvey (Wayne's World) shows up too, although I must have blinked through his role.

How others will see it. Racing with the Moon was a box office disappointment. It received lukewarm to good reviews, and the user ratings are in the same category. Since it is a romance, the user ratings are slightly higher from women than from men, although there is a surprising number of male bonding scenes between the wild and crazy Cage and the more introverted Penn. Older audiences prefer it marginally more than do young adults, perhaps appreciative of its boogie-woogie setting.

Fans attracted to Elizabeth McGovern should note she has a nude scene, although she showed even more in Ragtime a few years prior.

How I felt about it. In retrospect, Racing with the Moon is most interesting for its rising and falling young stars. First and third leads Penn and Cage would respectively and eventually win two and one Best Actor Oscars (so far).

But although McGovern was younger than Penn, her best days as an actress were already behind her. She had received an Oscar nomination for Ragtime (1982) and was the girlfriend of Timothy Hutton in Ordinary People. She even landed the female lead in a Sergio Leone movie, Once Upon a Time in America. But by the late 1980s, she was reduced to supporting roles in lesser projects. Such is life: she projected a wholesome girl-next-door image in an era when siren appeal (e.g. Kim Basinger, Michelle Pfeiffer) was in greater demand.

Those interested in the evocation of the 1940s may be disappointed. A few great-looking vintage cars and steam trains show up, and its fun to see a bowling alley where the pins are set up by employees instead of a machine. That's about it: the soundtrack is generic, the clothes are unremarkable, and most tellingly, the wartime tensions of the era are absent. Perhaps the problem is with the budget, or perhaps Director Richard Bejamin was simply a few years too young back in 1943 to remember it well.

As for the performances, Penn, a notorious method actor, is given little to work with, since his character is well meaning but bland. McGovern seemingly has a plum role, but as hinted at previously, nice girls finish last, or at least behind the likes of Kate Perry. This means the real winner here is Nicolas Cage, who gets to ham it up in his usual outrageous yet unconvincing fashion.

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