Running on Empty

April 13, 2020

runningonemptyTo most kids, “radical” is a highly approving descriptive term that suggests something outrageous and hip. However, to the children of Archie and Annie Pope, in the new film Running on Empty, “radical” describes their parents. Archie and Annie are radicals from the 1960s who have never given up the cause.

They couldn’t, even if they wanted to. In 1971 they bombed a napalm lab, injuring a janitor. Since then, they’ve been running from the police, changing their identities frequently, and roaming around the country. They’ve had two sons, the oldest of whom is now college-age. He’s wondering whether he’ll ever have a life of his own.

This boy, Danny (played by River Phoenix) is a talented musician, but he can’t go to any college without school records, of which he has none. But his parents (Christine Lahti and Judd Hirsch) are wary of setting him free. If they do, they might never see him again.

In these days when liberalism is a four-letter word, a sympathetic treatment of ex-radicals is unusual, to say nothing of commercially risky. Naomi Foner’s original screenplay has an angle: By approaching the story through the kid, the issues become immediately personal and less political.

It’s an interesting, emotionally affecting, and not entirely successful movie. Sidney Lumet, the director, falls prey to some of his familiar weaknesses (when a big emotional scene comes up you can be sure he’ll shoot the whole thing in teary close-ups). Yet there is something very strong at work here, something deeply personal that lingers.

Lumet’s opening and closing sequences are beautifully staged. As the film begins, we catch the family as they are hurriedly pulling up stakes in Florida, having been discovered by the authorities.

You get a trembly sense of the tenuousness of their existence, but not as melodrama; Lumet emphasizes the matter-of-fact way they change their appearances, the way the boys grouse about getting their hair dyed again.

And the ending, in which a few characters grow up – not just the children – is superbly handled. In between, there are some sharp scenes and some fuzzy ones, but it’s one of the rules of storytelling that a strong beginning and ending make up for a lot.

The film also has one of the best scenes Lumet has ever directed: a birthday party that breaks up into a communal dance when James Taylor’s “Fire and Rain” comes on the radio. You get a real sense of the family’s dynamics, the rituals within their strange way of life.

Martha Plimpton plays Danny’s love interest, a pampered girl who’s developed some budding rebelliousness of her own; L. M. Kit Carson plays a fellow radical who’s long since burned out; and Steven Hill plays Annie’s father, who meets his daughter for the first time in years in the movie’s biggest handkerchief scene.

All the principals are fine, but the film is most squarely on the shoulders of River Phoenix, who also played the son of unorthodox parents in The Mosquito Coast and Little Nikita. Phoenix finds the half­ formed nature of his character; his gestures and vocal mannerisms suggest a boy who has spent a lifetime repeatedly trying to fit in.

First published in the Herald, September 29, 1988

Funny review. I think I made up the “rule of storytelling” that a strong beginning and ending mean so much. And yet, that’s probably true. Also, what was I doing translating the lingo of “most kids” for the readers? I was in my 20s. I have not gone back to watch this film, but I was clearly moved by it, and by River Phoenix’s beautiful performance, which would surely seem even more touching now. You can tell by my touchiness in the review that this was being written from the Reagan era, when conservatives had the upper hand and progressive values – especially of the ’60s variety – were being denigrated by the right-wing jackasses in charge. By the way, Naomi Foner (who got one of the film’s two Oscar nominations, along with Phoenix) is the mother of Jake and Maggie Gyllenhaal.


Without a Trace

November 19, 2012

America is discovering Kate Nelligan, if the advertisements and reviews for Without a Trace are to be taken as any indication. This lovely actress hinted at effortlessly limitless range in Dracula, Eye of the Needle, and the TV-flick Victims, but she hasn’t quite broken out into the consciousness of the general public—no People magazine covers, no jobs as “Saturday Night Live” host, things like that. It looks as though Without a Trace will change that, because she’s the whole show here. As the mother looking for her missing six-year-old son, Nelligan is called upon to traverse the proverbial gamut of emotions; she does so admirably, sometimes within a single shot.

Not that in performing a showy role like this she has necessarily given her best performance, but it’s the sort of thing that makes people sit up and take notice at Oscar time. Nelligan is superb at hitting the right note at the right time; when called upon for quivering emotionalism, many actors go too far, and go sloppily, but Nelligan keeps control—completely in character—of her expressions and line readings. When occasionally she does let a word slip out of her carefully modulated vocal patterns, it’s like a tea-kettle spout blowing open for a second, only to close and simmer again—a startling, quick-flash glimpse at the seething struggle within her.

The film itself goes flat at times, but the story is interesting, and with Nelligan at its center, it can’t go wrong for too very long. In one of her most disturbing scenes, she lashes out at a friend who advises her to give up searching for the long-lost child; the friend fears that the search may be pushing the mother toward something close to madness. The unsettling thing about Nelligan’s acid response to this suggestion is that she strikes back with a sneer. It’s one of those actor’s decisions that are exactly right; Nelligan gets to the heart of this character by understanding that obsession wears on its face not a grimace, but a smile.

First published in The Informer, February 1983

The Kate Nelligan-becomes-a-star thing did not happen, although she continued having a sterling stage career. Maybe she was too smart for Hollywood? That’s the way she comes across at times, anyway. Otherwise, I remember this movie as being straight melodrama. It was the only feature directed by Stanley R. Jaffe, longtime Hollywood honcho.