A couple of weeks ago, when legendary director Sidney Lumet passed away, I wrote a column where I listed my “Top 10 Favourite Sidney Lumet Films” and mentioned that some of them were deserving of treatment in future “Robin’s Underrated Gems” columns. Like I’ve stated many times before, since Lumet was responsible for so many iconic classics, many very good films of his have been somewhat overshadowed and fallen through the cracks. Anyway, I’ve already done The Hill and covered Prince of the City several months ago and today, I would like to add Running on Empty to the list. This is a highly underrated family drama that tells its story in a fairly quiet and low-key fashion, but it packs a real emotional punch when it wants to. Sidney Lumet was a director who never wanted to make a simple formula picture and loved trying his hand at many different genres. During the 1980s, the cinemas were flooded with films that examined the subject of teen angst and even though Lumet is not the first director you’d expect to take on a project in that genre, the story of Running of Empty is such a unique and unconventional one that it’s easy to see why he would have thought it was worth his while. For the young protagonist of this film, the typical teen angst problems must seem awfully trivial when your parents are wanted fugitives on the run and you’re constantly expected to drop everything and change your entire life at a moment’s notice.
In the opening scenes of Running on Empty, 17-year old Danny Pope (River Phoenix) is riding home on his bike when he sees a car filled with FBI agents heading in the direction of his house. In what has become a fairly routine situation for him, Danny immediately turns around and warns his 10-year old brother Harry (Jonas Arby) and they both go to meet their parents, Arthur (Judd Hirsch) and Annie (Christine Lahti), at work. The Pope family never returns to their home and immediately flees to another town, where they formulate their latest plan to change their names and assume a brand new identity. It is soon revealed that Arthur and Annie were former political radicals who blew up a napalm factory in protest against the Vietnam War during their youth. Unfortunately, a janitor who wasn’t supposed to be in the building was blinded and paralyzed by the bombing, so Arthur and Annie have spent 15 years on the run from the FBI as wanted fugitives. The family’s entire lifestyle has involved remaining underground and constantly changing their identity while travelling from town to town, and the children have never known any other way to live. However, Danny has finally started to reach the point where he has grown tired of running. The Pope family move to a small town in New Jersey, where Danny’s talent at playing the piano catches the eye of the local high school music teacher, Mr. Phillips (Ed Crowley). Danny soon finds himself falling in love for the first time with the music teacher’s daughter, Lorna (Martha Plimpton), and cares about her so deeply that he actually decides to come clean and tell her the truth about his family’s past.
The Pope family finds itself in a major dilemma when Danny’s immense musical talent leads to the possibility of him being accepted at Juilliard. If his parents decides to let him go to the school, they will probably never be able to see him again because the FBI will place him under constant surveillance. Arthur has always believed that the family should stick together, no matter what, and Danny is so devoted to his parents that he is willing to give up his dreams in order to stay with them. However, Annie does not believe that Danny should sacrifice his entire future because of her own mistakes, and starts to believe it may be time to let him go forever. Running on Empty is an incredibly powerful, well-acted and sometimes heartbreaking drama that could have easily gone wrong, but somehow never does. If this were a traditional Hollywood formula picture, it’s possible that the story might have devolved into a Thelma & Louise-like chase picture and focused on the Pope family’s attempts to escape from the FBI. However, the authorities are barely even glimpsed at all in this film, and Running on Empty is far more interested in examining the realistic day-to-day challenges that a family on the run would have to face. The performances are excellent all around, but the real standout scene occurs when Annie meets with her estanged father (Steven Hill) for the first time in years and tries to convince him to take care of Danny, so that he may have a chance to live the successful life that she threw away. This scene really puts the audience through an emotional wringer and even the most hardened viewer may find themselves getting misty-eyed.
River Phoenix wound up garnering an Academy Award nomination for his performance in this film and shows that he was probably on his way becoming one of his generation’s greatest actors before his untimely death. Screenwriter Naomi Foner (the mother of Jake and Maggie Gyllenhaal) also earned herself a Oscar nomination for “Best Original Screenplay”, which was very well-deserved, considering that her script never strikes a false note nor chooses to cop out. While Arthur and Annie Pope are portrayed as sympathetic characters who genuinely love their children, the movie does not exonerate them for their reckless actions nor shy away from presenting the negative effects their choices have had on their children. Short of turning themselves in, letting Danny go off to live his own life is the only chance for redemption that Arthur and Annie could hope for. Running on Empty is yet another great entry in Sidney Lumet’s filmography that works because the director does not do anything to call attention to himself and simply lets the quality of the acting and the writing speak for themselves. Even though it received much critical acclaim, Running on Empty never found a large audience, and I’m sure its low-key approach and refusal to adhere to formula probably had something to do with that. However, those who want to watch a powerful and intelligent drama that never devolves into melodrama are highly advised to check it out.
Footnote: I’ve always been critical of the MPAA’s decision to give films an “R” rating simply because it contains multiple uses of the F-word. The King’s Speech got a much undeserved “R” rating because Colin Firth yelled “fuck” several times in one scene, and Harvey Weinstein pissed many people off by deciding to re-release a “PG-13” cut of the film with the profanity removed. Running on Empty originally received an “R” rating from the MPAA because it contained a few uses of the F-word, but Sidney Lumet, God bless him, is the one of the few directors who actually appealed the MPAA and WON, which allowed Running on Empty to be released uncut with a “PG-13”. Looks like Harvey could have used Sidney in his corner…