MOVIE REVIEW : ‘Running on Empty’ Purrs With High-Octane Acting

Times Staff Writer

“Running on Empty” (citywide) is remarkably successful in playing its taut portrayal of ‘60s radicals still on the run against a warm evocation of family life and first love. Sophisticated, uncompromising and refreshingly original, it is one of those rare films which is likely to mean as much to teens as it does to their parents.

Director Sidney Lumet has made of Naomi Foner’s inspired script one of his most impassioned and graceful films. Although apt for its theme, “Running on Empty” is an ironic title for such a winning picture with such an abundance of superlative performances.

Despite appearances, the Popes are not an ordinary family. When older son Danny (River Phoenix) notices two unmarked cars approaching his modest Florida home he sets in motion an elaborate escape plan for his parents, himself and his younger brother Harry (Jonas Abry, a sweet, affectionate youngster). Once again, the Popes are a couple of steps ahead of the FBI; once again, they are off to a new place with new identities.

For more than 15 years the Popes have been living underground. Arthur (Judd Hirsch) and Annie (Christine Lahti) met in college in the ‘60s, married and became involved in the anti-war movement and, Weatherman-style, bombed a university laboratory where government-funded napalm was being manufactured. Unintentionally and much to their horror, a janitor was left blinded. They become fugitives because they don’t want to be separated from Danny, then 2 years old.


As the years pass, the Popes have the routine down pat of establishing new identities and eradicating the past. But in this latest instance you immediately sense that things will be different.

To be sure, Annie and Arthur got their typical, ordinary jobs--she as a receptionist and he, a short-order cook. Even though Danny has always been obedient to his father who has indoctrinated the family with leftist dogma, he is now 17, growing up and beginning to think for himself.

The house the Popes have rented is as run-down and nondescript as the last one (and doubtlessly all of its predecessors), but it’s not far from a Colonial-style high school with buildings worthy of an Ivy League campus. It is there that Danny’s great promise as a concert pianist is discovered by his music teacher (Ed Crowley, delightfully urbane and idiosyncratic), whose lovely daughter Lorna (Martha Plimpton) becomes Danny’s first love.

Always a socially conscious film maker, Lumet plays fair with the Popes and their difficult predicament. He respects the idealism that radicalized the Popes during the Vietnam War and appreciates the circumstances that have dictated their fugitive existence while making us wonder how long they can keep their sons within it.


On one level, “Running on Empty” is an uncommonly tender, funny and life-like coming-of-age drama as seen in Danny and Lorna’s budding romance and his growing desire to develop his musical talent; on another, it is a reminder of the Vietnam War era and its painful legacy, which is driven home with an unexpected force that’s all the more shattering because of its indirectness.

For all the careful detailing expended in making “Running on Empty” credible, it is still possible to wonder how Danny and Harry seem to be such normal kids despite the fact that a transient, furtive existence is the only one they’ve known. You might expect that a lifelong pattern of assumed identities and abrupt departures from friends and even pets would scar them far more than the film suggests. Yet Lumet and Foner could certainly counter that the boys actually have received more strengthening parental love and attention than most children ever hope to receive. In any event, by its finish “Running on Empty” achieves a heartbreaking believability.

Lumet and his cast can’t be praised enough for the quality of the portrayals. River Phoenix has matured on screen more impressively than any young actor within recent memory: There just doesn’t seem to be any emotion or subtlety he can’t express. Much the same can be said for Martha Plimpton. In both instances it’s wonderful to see two young actors who are as intelligent as they are attractive.

For a while it may look as if the film will belong to the younger generation, but gradually Lahti and Hirsch move to the foreground to provide us with moments that are certain to become among the most memorable of their careers. The same is true for Steven Hill, in his single scene as Lahti’s father, a masterly display of an actor’s skill at reacting. Augusta Dabney, as Hill’s wife, makes a great impact in an even briefer scene. L. M. (Kit) Carson effectively represents the ‘60s radical gone sour.


“Running on Empty” is more than a handsome production and a visually elegant film. As admirable are composer Tony Mottola’s limpid score and cinematographer Gerry Fisher’s evocative images are, even more crucial to the film is Philip Rosenberg’s production design in making Plimpton’s large Victorian home the most inviting place imaginable.

Sidney Lumet is unafraid to suggest that even the most doctrinaire radical’s offspring could respond to such bourgeois comfort and security and that this in itself is not necessarily “bad.” It is this kind of honesty that makes “Running on Empty” (MPAA-rated R for adult themes and situations notable for their sensitive treatment) a major American film.