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‘Running on Empty’ (PG)

By Hal Hinson
Washington Post Staff Writer
September 30, 1988

In "Running on Empty," Sidney Lumet ruminates on the meaning of the '60s, and what does he come up with? What does it mean to him?

Dancing to James Taylor in the kitchen.

I've seen fire and I've seen rain, but this marks a true low. Based on a screenplay by Naomi Foner, the movie picks up the family of Arthur and Annie Pope (Judd Hirsch and Christine Lahti) 15 years after they blew up a lab manufacturing napalm and, in the process, blinded a janitor who wasn't supposed to be there. Since then, they've lived underground with their two sons, Danny (River Phoenix) and his younger brother Harry (Jonas Abry), moving frequently, assuming one identity and, then, when the feds catch on, moving on and discarding it for another.

There's a genuine subject here, perhaps even a great one. What it touches on is the costs of political commitment, specifically the fervent activism of young college kids in the '60s who, swept up in the revolutionary moment, took actions they pay for for the rest of their lives.

But having introduced his subject, Lumet seems less than keen on exploring it. And he seems determined to turn away from its dramatic potential.

The Popes seem remarkably untouched by the pressures of their secret lives. Settling into a new home in a New Jersey town, they go looking for jobs and everybody gets one -- the first day! And when the FBI forces the family into yet another move, they react as if their washing machine had broken down and they were obliged to visit the coin laundry. At a moment's notice, they leave everything behind, their clothes, their furniture, their dog, and speak not a cross word. Not even a frown.

"Running on Empty" doesn't make much sense for the title of the movie (they're running, all right, but not on empty, if we're to believe what is said about the love and the family tenderness), but it does work as a description of the director. Sidney Lumet may be the laziest major director working today. By reputation, he's known as an actor's director, which means, in practice, that he leaves it entirely up to his performers to carry the scenes. And his actors here perform admirably, though they seem not to know exactly what they're supposed to be playing and so they are reduced to giving us mere moments.

But playing these characters would be impossible anyway. They're like composites constructed out of cross-section surveys of baby boomers, and Lumet leaves out any notion of personal psychology or motive. It's as if his characters acted only in response to generational forces.

Most of the movie has nothing to do with politics or the '60s, but with some tired melodramatics about children growing up and leaving the nest. The principal action features the crisis faced by the teen-age son, Danny, who has hung on to a battered practice keyboard on which he has become a wonderfully clever piano virtuoso. He's in love, too, with Lorna (Martha Plimpton), a frisky blond from school who, we're to assume, is the first girl ever to pry open the cone of silence that he keeps clamped down around his head.

The crisis occurs when Danny is singled out for Juilliard by Lorna's father (who's also his music teacher), who starts digging around for records. ("They, uh, burned up. That's it! There was this big fire, see, and, yeah, they burned right up.") Impossibly, Mom and Dad never contemplated this, or the possibility that their son might want to leave and go off to college.

Afraid that things are getting hot, Dad announces to the family that they're packing up, preempting any discussion of Danny's school plans. Lumet bores in shamelessly on our emotions in these later scenes, setting up a big farewell scene between Danny and Lorna ("They need me," Danny says. "I need you," answers Lorna) and a big farewell scene with the parents. Over the ending, we hear the James Taylor song again. What are the words? "Lonely days that I thought would never end."


"Running on Empty" contains scenes of teen-agers kissing in close-up.

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