RUNNING ON EMPTY: Blu-ray (Lorimar 1988) Warner Archive

There are only three kinds of movies to consider: (1) those so utterly bad we would have wished never to have seen them in the first place; (2), movies we could have wished no more of because they seem perfect as they are, and, (3) others we simply wish could have been that much better. Sidney Lumet’s Running on Empty (1988) falls into this latter category. For although its affecting and oft intelligently handled tale of a pair of post-60’s radicals in perpetual flux and hiding since their youthful anti-war indiscretion has merit, and the picture equally features disarming and startlingly mature performances by the late River Phoenix and Martha Plimpton, the latter half of Naomi Foner’s screenplay just seems like a rush job with the perfunctory bittersweet, if ‘sort of’ happy ending tacked on for good measure. There are two aspects about this would-be Sidney Lumet masterpiece that I find particularly infuriating; first, Foner’s absence of good sense to recall that her story is about a family of four on the lam since 1970, virtually jettisoning any and all character development between parents and children, except in one poignantly realized exchange between mother, Annie Pope (the sadly underrated Christine Lahti) and her wounded teenage son, that does not concentrate on the burgeoning romance between Danny Pope (Phoenix) and Lorna Phillips (Plimpton) (the romance, itself, thoroughly satisfying and ever-evolving with heartbreaking clarity to drown out all other extemporaneous noise).
My second beef here is that virtually every secondary character Foner and Lumet elect to stick with for even a marginal amount of screen time never seems to run true to form; Judd Hirsch’s Arthur Pope, a dyed in the wool renegade/father, adept and relentless at constantly moving his family from town to town just one step ahead of the FBI, suddenly – inexplicably - loosens his implacable yoke to give his kid the opportunities he can never have; thus allowing Danny to emerge from the shadow of his sins. Then, there is Ed Crowley’s benevolent music teacher, Mr. Phillips. He can see the virtues in this pubescent acolyte with extraordinary gifts at the piano but fails to recognize his own, as remarkable daughter, chronically dejected by his inability to reach out to her in any meaningful way.  Running on Empty is a refreshing departure from the status quo of movies made at the tail end of an unusually ‘experimental’ period in the 1980s when Hollywood was still willing and ready to gamble on stories decidedly ‘outside’ the mainstream. Sidney Lumet’s participation ensures that this character-driven drama is never out of sync with the much belied and equally as beloved tear-jerker.
There is, in fact, a superbly handled moment in the movie’s third act where Annie arranges for her estranged father, Wall St. investment banker, Donald Patterson (Steven Hill) to take Danny under his wing. He reminds her of all the promise she once possessed, and also, without bitterness, of the way she rejected his affluence as a teenager, labeling him a ‘capitalist pig’, and she, pleadingly rekindles her enduring love through tears for him and her absent mother, Abigail (Augusta Dabney). It is the deft handling of all this angst, self-pity and glimpses into lost opportunities that Lumet wrangles so well; his keen director’s eye zeroing in on the subtleties rather than grace notes to wring tears from both his actors and the audience. Lumet is, of course, working with an exceptional cast from top to bottom, capped off by a revelatory performance from River Phoenix (barely 17 but with extraordinary presence of mind and maturity to carry off what is, in fact, an exceptionally complex role).
Even after all this time passed, I find it difficult to be clear-eyed about River Phoenix as a performer; the flood of anger and regret I continue to harbor over his utterly wasted life, ridiculously cut short by an apparent drug overdose outside of L.A.’s Viper Room in 1993. Phoenix’s endowments totaled beyond the movie screen as both a musician and animal activist. What he might have achieved in any of these varied fields of interest we will, alas, never know. But observing Phoenix in this performance in particular I am again straightaway awestruck by his degree of sensitivity; that tender self-analysis kept reticent and disciplined. Where another actor of his years might have played pathos writ large in teenage angst for all its worth and melancholy, Phoenix here holds back on virtually every expected vice of youth; finding uncommon depth and conveying every ounce of it with barely an questioning glance, sustained and penetrating stares, or, in the movie’s penultimate ‘almost’ farewell to Plimpton’s emotionally bottled Lorna, a sort of willowy finesse that makes his quivered lament of surrender more meaningful than perfunctory or embarrassingly gloomy. Phoenix was, in fact, Oscar-nominated for Best Supporting Actor; a statuette lost to Kevin Kline’s bombastically perverse con man in A Fish Called Wanda.
Running on Empty was produced on a thumbnail budget by Lorimar Productions, a company co-founded in 1969 by Lee Rich and Merv Adelson and occupying unique ‘real estate’ in Hollywood’s history; so utterly prolific it was nicknamed ‘the fifth network’ within the industry. Within a year of incubation, Lorimar had become the Cartier gold standard bearer of popular U.S. television programming, moving into MGM’s defunct Culver City studio backlots and laying claim to such runaway hits as The Waltons, Dallas, Knots Landing and Falcon Crest - to say nothing of Full House, ALF and The Hogan Family. Lorimar would remain in top form on the small screen, merging with Telepictures in 1986, and, maintaining its power broker status until it was bought outright in 1989 for $1.2 billion by Warner Bros. Running on Empty really enters the Lorimar story at the end of its illustrious run and, at the time, making narrowly a ripple to advance the company’s stature. In truth, Lorimar’s strengths were always on the small screen, their forays into feature films almost uniformly disappointing, with the exception of Being There (1979); the only real hit from a backlog of nineteen movies. By the mid-80s, Lorimar’s feature film division had hemorrhaged a cool $21 million.  Even on its relatively miniscule budget of $3 million, Running on Empty underperformed, earning back barely $2,835,116; a box office dud by any barometer.  
Running on Empty opens with a daring escape; Danny and his younger brother, Harry (Jonas Abry) alerted to a suspicious car parked near their modest home. Covertly, the pair evacuates the house by way of an open field out back, Danny taking only one possession – his keyboard – as they scurry to tip off their parents, Annie and Arthur. Their latest stolen identities have been unearthed by the FBI. Annie quietly leaves her receptionist’s job at a local dentist’s office knowing she will never return, and Arthur bails on his garage mechanic’s gig; the family piling into their VW bus and driving away undetected for parts unknown.  Very soon we get the real lay of the land; Annie and Arthur, circa 1970; young, radical and in love, bombing a napalm laboratory while they were still students together – their stance against the Vietnam war. Problem: their declaration against capitalist cruelty blinded a night janitor who was not supposed to be in the building at the time. Ever since, the pair has been on the lam – living hand-to-mouth in the quiet backwaters and small towns where one can easily blend into the fabric of mid-American family values undetected.
The couple’s underground network includes Gus Winant (L. M. Kit Carson) who, despite his pretense as a sixties radical, is actually little more than a grown-up kid, still hot for Annie and hoping to win her away from Arthur. Life with Arthur has not been easy. His strict set of rules has kept the family ten steps ahead of the FBI. But Art has little use for Gus and vice versa. Annie, however, suffers from a decided soft spot where Gus is concerned.  Meanwhile, Danny and Harry enroll in new schools, lying about their records having been destroyed in a fire. At first, it’s life as usual – or as ‘unusual’ for Danny, whose only genuine passion is music. His talent catches the eye of music teacher, Mr. Phillips. But his boyish good looks equally attract the attentions of Phillips’ teenage daughter, Lorna. There’s something sweet, shy and unrefined about Danny; a real diamond in the rough; introverted, sad and simply brilliant. Soon, and unbeknownst to Mr. Phillips, Lorna and Danny become an item.
After hearing Danny play piano, Mr. Phillips encourages him to apply to Julliard’s prestigious music program; something Danny would kill to do if only he could be assured pursuing this dream to its completion. Alas, his family is so nomadic it would be silly and pointless to dream. Nevertheless, Danny musters up the courage to attend Julliard’s auditions where, with considerable skill, he wows the judges. Afterward, Danny seeks out his grandmother and patron of the arts, Abigail Patterson, pretending to be a pizza delivery man who has mistaken her address for his delivery. Never having met Danny before, Abigail is pleasantly perplexed by his insistence she take the pizza to enjoy in good health (since it is already paid for).  Afterward, Danny shares his day and his dreams with Lorna. He also confesses his family’s deep, dark secret. She is loyal and keeps it to herself. The two make love and develop an even more intense bond.
Learning of his outing in the big city, Annie takes great pride in Danny’s successful audition. She once had dreams of being a concert pianist and has been instrumental in his training on the keyboard. Lorna attends Annie’s birthday party where everyone is required to either make or find a gift. Lorna bequeaths a shiny stone she found while on one of her nature walks with Danny. Afterward, Mr. Phillips attempts to pump Lorna for information about Danny’s family as well as his past. Lorna is mildly incensed and informs her father if he wants to know more about Danny he should try getting to know him as someone better than just an aspiring protégé. Mr. Phillips next approaches Annie, plying her with high praise about Danny’s musical talents. He also reveals the results of Danny’s Julliard audition. Knowing what this opportunity would mean to her son, Annie quietly arranges for a meeting with her estranged father, Donald. The two share a clandestine and tearful exchange at a fashionable restaurant. Annie pleads for Donald to take custody of Danny. He willingly agrees. Alas, back at home Arthur is outraged both Annie and Danny has been conspiring seemingly against him. He bitterly explains that if Danny walks away from the family he can never come back to them for fear of being perennially watched by the FBI.
Regrettably, there is no time to think about the future. Gus is shot and killed while trying to rob a bank but not before he reveals to the police Annie and Arthur’s whereabouts. With not a moment to spare, Arthur prepares to pack up the family and flee again. Danny promises to rejoin his folks after he has said goodbye to Lorna. Luring Lorna from her class under a false pretext, Danny confesses he must go. Lorna is distraught and begs him to stay. After all, it’s not Danny’s fault the FBI are after them. He has done nothing wrong. Nevertheless, Danny’s loyalties are split between Lorna and his dreams to study music and his duties to act as a scout for his parents and younger brother. Tearfully, the two part company. But as Arthur prepares to evacuate the family for good he has a sudden change of heart. He realizes it is wrong to make his children pay for the crime he and his wife committed so very long ago. Removing Danny’s knapsack and bicycle from the back of his pickup, Arthur stoically releases his son into the world. Theirs will always be a dangerous life. But perhaps Danny’s can fulfill at least a part of the promise and shared dream they all held so dear a very long time ago. As the family drives away to parts unknown and their next identity in a new town, Danny is reunited with Lorna. Whatever his future holds, it will now be his to discover.
Arthur Pope’s penultimate epiphany is Running on Empty’s Achilles heel; weakly conceived and even more naively tacked on for good measure. It seems to come out of nowhere for a guy who has thus far played the part of a stern, perpetually harried and telescopically focused survivalist, making due within the restrictions of this life sentence he has chosen – not only for himself, but his family, without question or deviation. River Phoenix may have been Oscar-nominated as Best Supporting Actor, but Running on Empty is a veritable showcase for him and he carries the picture with supremely understated confidence. Lumet’s direction intuitively favors the outsider with clear-eyed appreciation. The better scenes in the picture are all driven by exquisite introspection between Danny and the rest of the ensemble, superbly underplayed by the entire cast and directed by Sidney Lumet with an even more understated search for the truth; all of it lensed by cinematographer, Gerry Fisher with a disquieting thread of naturalism.
However, at 116 minutes, Running on Empty just seems a tad rushed in its narrative structure. Lumet takes great pains to set up all of these characters at the start, and thereafter affords each a little something along the way to ingratiate them to the audience. The first and second act are solid, full of intriguing character development, peppered with Lumet’s impeccable gift for building the narrative bridges that unexpectedly bind together these disparate types. Alas, the last act is a misfire, momentarily interrupted by the aforementioned tear-jerking exchange between Annie and her father and capped off by Danny and Lorna’s wounded ‘Romeo and Juliet-esque’ farewell.  In the final analysis, Running on Empty remains an underrated picture. River Phoenix should have won the Oscar. The movie ought to have done more business at the box office. But it also should have topped out with a better finale. Is it a masterpiece? Debatable. Is it worth your time and a second look? Absolutely!
Running on Empty arrives on Blu-ray via the Warner Archive (WAC). Again, this is another solid 1080p transfer achieved under very high quality control standards. Scanned at 2K resolution from an interpositive struck from the original camera negative, and color-timed from an original Eastman stock answer print, this Blu-ray faithfully reproduces Gerry Fisher's subtle play of shadow and light with uncannily film-like texture. Sharpness, detail, black levels, etc. are all perfect and virtually free of age-related artifacts and untoward digital tinkering. The newly remastered 2.0 mono DTS from an original magnetic master reveals some refinement in dialogue. Lumet famously abhorred drawing attention to movie underscore and virtually all of Running on Empty’s music cues are either diegetic classical excerpts or mere riffs by jazz guitarist, Tony Mottola to briefly punctuate a moment. Running on Empty is a movie you watch for performances, not flashy directionalized sound fields or explosive bursts of dramatic underscore. An original theatrical trailer is the only extra included. Ho-hum. It’s a pity Sidney Lumet was never afforded the opportunity to revisit this film with an audio commentary. Bottom line: Running on Empty is worth seeing again. Highly recommended!
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)