by DURGA CHEW-BOSE
Running on Empty
dir. Sidney Lumet
1988, 115 min
“Note-perfect,” was how my friend Akiva described Sidney Lumet’s Running on Empty in a recent gchat. As it often happens, I intuit praise as vital tidings; as if being made aware of something, in effect, hikes up its value. I have since watched the movie four times, three times alone, and once with someone who I feared was not 'getting it' — who I split my attention between, hoping to note a slight smile warming on his face during some of those 'note-perfect' scenes.
Released in 1988, three decades after Lumet's debut feature, 12 Angry Men, Running on Empty tells the story of Annie and Arthur Pope (Christine Lahti, Judd Hirsch), whose past involvement in a 1970s anti-war bombing of a napalm laboratory has forced them underground.
On the run with their two sons, Danny (River Phoenix) and Harry (Jonas Abry), the Popes adopt new identities every time they are forced to skip town. "Hey kid, you," Annie quizzes Danny as she opens a can of tuna in their newest home, "What's your name?" "Michael," he answers only to have Arthur drill him more aggressively. "What's my name? Spell it. What's your mother's name? And your brother?" Danny responds with mocking fidelity, out-daring the very authority his father had taught him to rival all of those years.
But moments like that last one are rare, and the conceit of a fugitive family pales in comparison to the story of a family and its day by day dynamic. Their readiness to conspire — not just as outlaws, but as a little brother who pulls pranks at the dinner table, or as a mother who whispers to her love-struck teenage son, 'I like her,' or as a father who playfully winces whenever his kids speak in surfer slang and misuse the word 'radicaaaal' — that spirit is portrayed with a fullness that tolerates bouts of adolescence in adulthood and prodigious wisdom among children. Like so many of his films, despite his characters' jeopardous lifestyles or expiring freedom, Lumet's capacity for creating an entire world feels triumphant.
In re-watching Running on Empty, I noted, as if pocketing mementos for later, some of my favorite parts. Written by Naomi Foner (Jake and Maggie Gyllenhaal's mother) the script really finds its sweet spots when Danny and his music teacher's daughter, Lorna Phillips (Martha Plimpton), fall in love. Lorna, whose assuredness and nervy manner of speaking (and whose voice is deeper than Phoenix's) — "You are certifiable!" is one of the first things she tells him — and who stands with her arms crossed, grins, defends her anger as wit, and impassively talks about feelings, family, and the future, is offset by Plimpton's soft, doll-like hair, her sunken boyish features, and most of all, her protective love for Danny.
River Phoenix, whose contemplative manner is at once serious and rebellious, anchors the movie. Even the score, a bittersweet piano that is somehow suggestive and nostalgic, both, might very well be one of his pieces; Danny's virtuosic piano playing and Julliard audition marks the beginning of his doubts to remain with his family on the lam. Although he talks like a teenager, "I feel kind of lousy," and reacts self-consciously like one too—removing his wire-frame glasses when he answers a question in class — his withdrawal is burdened by a life changing choice. Like most teenagers in movies who live in city outskirts, Danny’s rare flashes of abandon are captured when he peddles standing up and turns a corner, or how he never locks his bike, or how effortlessly he jumps over railings and climbs in and out of windows.
Annie's birthday dinner plays much like a foreign film: party crowns, a modest yet joyful table, jokes about LSD trips, and a James Taylor "Fire and Rain" sing-along as they clear the table, dance, and do the dishes. Here the Pope family's outlook is at its truest without becoming too darling. They are a unit, accompanied this time by Lorna, who in her tomato-red crop top and rainbow skirt is happily unfettered, a welcome change from her father's chamber music concerts where she "dresses for a funeral" in lace that matches the Phillips’ sitting room curtains.
Especially great about Running on Empty is its endless supply of tokens from that time: Christine Lahti's high-waisted jeans and white baggy turtleneck, Judd Hirsch’s quintessential ‘Dad’ jokes, or those varying shades of corduroy brown and navy blues, or how saying "they look uptight" is the most accurate way of describing 'otherness.' Insulting someone's IQ, that too was once relevant, or how a teacher, if he took a particular liking to you, might say "Get outta here" after class. Or how home economics involved partnering off, aprons, rows of ovens and Formica counters, buttercream mixing bowls, and instructions on how to make tuna-walnut-casserole.
It’s an unusual type of fondness to love a movie that is neither groundbreaking nor particularly dazzling, and that does not occupy a critical place in its director's canon. But like passages from books that I revisit or quotes from teachers I copied in college notebooks, Running on Empty too, has incredibly strong restorative powers.
Durga Chew-Bose is the senior editor of This Recording. She is a writer living in Brooklyn. She twitters here and tumbls here. You can find an archive of her work on This Recording here. She last wrote in these pages about her mother.