|Running on Empty|
|Written by Abbie Bernstein|
|Tuesday, 30 March 1999|
‘Running on Empty’ is an intelligent drama with a lot on its mind. While it revolves around an extreme version of parental separation anxiety, it also encompasses a variety of ethical conundrums while being tender, often surprisingly funny and even suspenseful.
In 1971, Annie (Christine Lahti) and Arthur Pope (Judd Hirsch), nee Papoff, were anti-war activists who blew up a napalm lab and accidentally blinded a janitor. They’ve been on the run from the FBI ever since, children in tow. It’s now 1987 and the family keeps changing their names, their homes, their jobs, their lives. The only constants in their lives are each other. 17-year-old elder son Danny (River Phoenix) loves his family, but he also increasingly wants a normal existence, especially as he’s just met a girl (Martha Plimpton) -- but if Danny goes to college, odds are good that he’ll never see his fugitive parents again.
Director Sidney Lumet and screenwriter Naomi Foner make the day-to-day lives of the Popes both plausible and intriguing, detailing how they are able to keep up mundane appearances while sidestepping the paper trail that follows ordinary folks around. (It’s worth noting that the film was made in 1988 -- the subsequent proliferation of computers and instant information access would make the tale less likely today.) At the film’s heart, however, is the struggle between wanting to have a cohesive family life and wanting a separate identity. Danny’s choice is more dramatic than most, but the larger issues will ring true for virtually everyone.
The performances are excellent, particularly the gentle but steely Lahti and the bright, melancholy Phoenix. Recalling the young actor’s untimely death gives the film an unintended but hard-to-ignore extra layer of poignancy. Writer Foner has a good ear for specifics, especially in the way that Arthur feels the need to continually reinforce his ‘60s ideals. When Danny wants to attend a chamber music recital, the older man is horrified: why can’t his son listen to rock ‘n’ roll like a healthy child of the counterculture? Annie and Arthur’s guilt about the injury they have caused the anonymous stranger long ago and the continuing upheaval in their children’s lives is well-delineated without being either glib or overstated.
Lumet’s imagery (though slightly victimized by the 1:3:3 framing) maintains its wistful suburban prettiness on the DVD transfer, full of greens, blues and the silver of reflected light. As the plot relies heavily on music, sound and the mix of ambience and performance is particularly important here. Piano solos are reproduced with silky precision. Chapter 9 not only has lovely clear notes in the upper register but a good, authentic bass vibrato when Danny attacks the piano’s lower keys. Madonna’s "Lucky Star" shows up agreeably as part of a classroom scene in Chapter 8, blended well into the various sounds of the room. A dramatic and aural highlight is a singalong to James Taylor’s "Fire and Rain" in Chapter 18, with the Popes and Danny’s girlfriend all chiming in as the LP spins on the turntable. The song is sweetened just enough to give it an edge over the homemade vocals, without stressing the playback to the point that we are drawn out of the immediacy of what is an admirably powerful scene in an overall strong, moving film.