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‘Running on Empty’ (PG)

By Desson Howe
Washington Post Staff Writer
September 30, 1988

Look out: A Sidney Lumet movie is loose. It's a big vehicle, loaded with the usual artistic statement. But "Running on Empty" is coasting downhill fast.

Police believe screenwriter and coexecutive producer Naomi Foner is the one who released the handbrake. "Empty's" radical family -- Judd Hirsch, Christine Lahti, River Phoenix, Jonas Abry -- on the run from the FBI might have made for a gripping thriller or an incisive character study, among many possibilities. But Foner must think suspense is something that holds your pants up, and her characters just Muppets who can cross their own legs (from her salad days at "Sesame Street").

Only River Phoenix as Danny, the 17-year-old son of this fugitive family, and Martha Plimpton, as his wisecracking girlfriend Lorna, show signs of life.

Hirsch's Arthur Pope, Danny's on-the-run father, is a cardboard-carrying leftie; and his wife Annie, still fixed on the fling she never had with sexy revolutionary Gus (L. M. Kit Carson), is another Christine Lahti experiment in diffident eccentricity. You wouldn't like either of them if they were three-dimensional.

The Popes have been in Leftist Hell since 1971, when antiwar activists Arthur and Annie blew up a napalm lab but inadvertently blinded a janitor. Trying to keep one step ahead of the feds, the family has been changing towns and identities on very short notice ever since.

Director Lumet, who tries to steer towards Topical Theme Park (he has tried the same with "Fail-Safe," "Serpico," "Network," "The Verdict" and others), grinds those significant gears. But most information is conveyed to you via dialogue overburdened with exposition: We know this underground life is tough because, well, the family members tell each other how tough it is. Lumet's only success comes through the Phoenix-Plimpton relationship. Phoenix's head-bowed demeanor and Plimpton's perky quips give water to a budding high-school romance.

"Yeah right," says knowing Lorna, when new-boy Danny slouches into cookery class. "You have a burning desire to make Apple Brown Betty."

Foner goes for the sentimental jugular while Lumet pins you to the floor. In something that must have seeped out of "Fame," Danny's music teacher pushes him to get a Juilliard piano scholarship. (The teacher happens to be Lorna's dad.) And Annie nearly had a Juilliard scholarship, but had to give it up. On another occasion, a birthday party for Annie, the sentimental James Taylor song "Fire and Rain" comes on and the misty-eyed Popes sing along. For the whole song.

Good luck at Juilliard, Danny. Don't write home.

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