Running on Empty (1988) is another under the radar movie which I picked up for pittance here in Bogota. I hadn’t seen it since my youth, but I was very fond of it. So you can imagine my surprise when I happened to stumbled across it 30 years later. It showcases another wonderful performance by River Phoenix who we previously discussed in Peter Weir’s The Mosquito Coast. He was even nominated for the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor for his role in Running on Empty. It was surprisingly his only Oscar-nominated performance. He returned with his long time adolescent sweetheart Martha Plimpton where they played romantic interests having costarred in Mosquito two years earlier.
Running on Empty tells the story of a counterculture couple on the run from the FBI, and how one of their sons (Phoenix) starts to break out of this fugitive lifestyle. According to wikipedia – The fugitive parents Arthur and Annie Pope were loosely modeled after Weather Underground leaders Bill Ayers and Bernardine Dohrn. John Simon states that the characters’ bombing of a napalm research facility was inspired by the Sterling Hall bombing of 1970.
Running on Empty starts off as a relatively slow family drama, but as we grow accustomed to the characters and learn of their motivations it is pretty tough not to be drawn into it and emotionally invested in their plight. The only underwhelming aspect for mine about Running on Empty is it’s ‘title’ which doesn’t do it the least bit of service. The film had remained so lodged in my memory after all these years mainly because of it’s unforgettable ending where Phoenix’s character and his family launch into their homespun version of James Taylor ‘Fire and Rain‘. An iconic song which was recently showcased on Badfinger’s Powerpop’s blog.
After having rewatched Running on Empty after such a long time I was surprised at how many heartwrenching moments are in it. Christine Lahti who plays the mother has two scenes in this film which are particular standouts, including one with Steven Hill who plays her father. The characters are totally convincing. The young man played by River Phoenix is someone we must sympathize with: his dilemma is a lifelong choice between never seeing his loved ones again or continuing to grow as a very talented pianist. The choice is agonizing, and the ending is sure to bring tears to many eyes of people who are part of a close-knit family.
Interesting trivia details about Running on Empty (IMDB Trivia):
- Running on Empty was released on September 9, 1988, in 22 theaters, where it grossed $215,157 on its opening weekend. It went on to make $2,835,116 in North America.
- Although River Phoenix learned all the hand motions to the piano pieces his character performs in the movie, the audio was dubbed by a professional pianist.
- The actor Jake Gyllenhaal (whose mother, Naomi Foner, wrote the screenplay for Running on Empty) recalled that he was allowed to sit in on two weeks of rehearsals before filming started.
- Successfully had its MPAA rating changed through the formal appeals process. Originally given an “R” due to more than one use of the “F” word, it was revised to “PG13”.