Not to bandy words, "Running" is insufferable. Collapsing onto several area screens today, this sporting tearjerker is the dopiest imitation yet of "Rocky," already imitated into absurdity.
Michael Douglas chose "Running" over 500 other scripts allegedly clamoring for his attention. Yet only a prince of simpletons could covet his role as Michael Andropolis, a young man separated from his family who neglects job, marriage and all other considerations to indulge his long-shot desire to qualify for the Olympic marathon and thereby make up for an earlier competitive failure that marked him as a "quitter."
New York is Michael's picturesque jogging ground. Each weekday morn he leaves a drab room on the West Side (where the local black kids consider him a real soulmate) to run across the 59th Street Bridge and meet his youngest daughter outside their Queens home, jogging beside her as she bikes to school.
He runs in suit trousers and dress shirt, with his suit jacket tied around his waist and his necktie draped across his forehead for a sweatband. This allows him to dash straight back to a shoe-selling job in the city. For some reason, the owner can't tolerate a tardy, sweaty salesman and fires him, compelling Michael into the unemployment line, where he immediately proves his mettle by making a grandstanding speech for quicker service.
Although Michael's wife Janet, played by Susan Anspach, has filed for divorce, she still dotes on her wandering boy. Indeed, Anspach's performance consists almost exclusively of tolerant, beatific smiles shining rays of reassurance upon Douglas' worried, sweat-stained countenance.
When their oldest daughter confesses that she finds dad's behavior a trifle excruciating, Janet flies to his defense: "Andrea, don't you ever tell me that your father is embarrassing. Running is his only way of surviving. He's got a plan: He's going to run in the Olympics and come home if he wins." Naturally, the disrespectful child feels thoroughly ashamed of herself.
Obviously, Janet and Michael deserve each other, and the nerve-jangling infantilism of this match is underlined at a later tender moment. Following a night in bed, Janet tells Michael, "Maybe I do something that keeps you from fulfilling yourself. Maybe I'm so independent it keeps you dependent." Far from caring whether or not this marriage can be saved, you get an uncontrollable urge to see it wiped off the screen. Stop the projector! Point out the ninny who wrote this drivel!
The offending writer-director in this case is Steven Hilliard Stern, a Canadian who has a couple of indifferent features to his credit -- "B. S., I Love You" and "The Harrad Summer" -- but has worked for the most part in television. Stern and Douglas evidently enjoyed a truly heartfelt meeting of minds. "Running staggers along on a single, manipulative track, intent on demonstrating a self-evidently fallacious notion: that selfish, weak-willed Michael Andropolis is really better than anybody else and deserves unquestioning respect and solicitude.
It's obvious that Stern and Douglas percieve the asinine Michael Andropolis as an admirable new image of masculinity: the incorrigible weakling, loser and dropout as saintly hero.
Representing a vulgar pitch for sympathy and sexual favors, this sorry excuse for a protagonist is turning up with maddening frequency -- for example, the characters played by Al Pacino in . . . "And Justice for All" and John Heard in "Head Over Heels." They too are small-spirited, self-absorbed losers being passed off as men of finer instincts and deeper feelings.
This peculiar new sentimentality is discredited by the movies themselves, and will never appeal to men and women who retain an ounce of sexual pride. Nevertheless, it's destined to make a nuisance of itself for the time being.
It's been fortunate for Michael Douglas that his first starring vehicles, "Hail, Hero!," "Adam at Six A.M." and Summertree," were such instant flops that few people recall his inability to carry dippy material by the force of his own personality or prowness. His recent success surely owes as much to good fortune as raw talent. Douglas inherited the filmmaking rights to "Cuckoo's Nest" from his father, who had wanted to star in a film version for many years and would probably have won the Oscar that eventually went to Jack Nicholson if he'd got the opportunity way back in the '60s.
"Coma" and "The China Syndrome," the two commercial hits in which Michael Douglas played leading roles, were obviously dominated by other actors: Genevieve Bujold in the former, Jack Lemmon in the latter.
While he seems a capable, attractive performer, Douglas has never been a credible star presence. If his limitations, both histrionic and intellectual were obscured before, "Running" makes them painfully apparent.