peteg's blog - noise - movies - 2023 02 22 RunningOnEmpty

Running on Empty (1988)

/noise/movies | Link

More Sidney Lumet completism. Christine Lahti and Judd Hirsch play parents on the lam from the days when blowing up napalm factories for reasons of conscience (we wanted to bring an end to the Việt Nam war!) wasn't considered entirely beyond the pale. The main thread of the story focuses on River Phoenix, the older of their two boys, while the younger Jonas Abry seems more accident than spare. To an extent their lives felt familiar to me — moving on at short notice in that van, that pickup truck! — and perhaps because it's a classic 1980s sweet nuclear American family movie, a right of passage for many young blokes at the time (e.g. Johnny Depp in What's Eating Gilbert Grape? etc.).

The plot as it were has Phoenix, at a difficult age, inevitably coming unstuck due to the unbearable weight of his massive (musical) talent, and, of course, a girl-woman who, being normatively-normal, just has to get into his pants. Politics is avoided as much as possible soas to avoid triggering those who are unsympathetic to direct action. (There's a subplot involving an ex boyfriend, a bank heist and summary justice to further placate that crowd and those pining for Dog Day Afternoon.) The main theme is generically universal: that kids escaping the nest is painful for all involved.

Hirsch got an Oscar nom for this portrayal of an old-school activist here, and more recently for playing an echo of it in The Fabelmans. He's sometimes quite funny, often effective, and just occasionally clunky. River Phoenix is opaque, a bit wooden, which is played up to be intentional but I had my doubts. Lahti just relaxes into it all.

Roger Ebert: four stars, one of the best films of the year. Janet Maslin wasn't as persuaded; she did not find Hirsch's character credible.