Running on Empty – Sidney Lumet (Friday’s Finest)

Running on Empty

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 wikipediaThe 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”.

“The more I live, the more I learn. The more I learn, the more I realize, the less I know.”- Michel Legrand

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17 comments on “Running on Empty – Sidney Lumet (Friday’s Finest)
  1. badfinger20 says:

    I watched this also when I was younger. I have it lined up because of us talking about it before. I’m looking forward to watching it again. Love the Fire and Rain scene.

  2. Sorry, yes watching it again brought back lots of memories because it had been so long. I hope you enjoy it the next time around.

  3. Sidney Lumet, a great director!

    • I had of course heard his name before, but hadn’t realised until you mentioned him what fantastic movies he directed. 12 Angry men, Dog Day Afternoon, Serpico and the Verdict. What an impressive list! Thank you!!!!

  4. selizabryangmailcom says:

    I remember being moved by this film. It would be pretty awful to be in that position, hiding out with kids and forcing them to live a lifestyle they didn’t choose. The parents were somewhat selfish, don’t you think? I mean, if you believe what you’re doing is right, that’s fine. But why drag the kids into it? Also miss River a lot. So sad that he, Philip Hoffman, and Heath Ledger all died accidentally, and they had SO MUCH to offer still….

    • I think I felt similarly to you regarding the parents, but it’s undersandable they wanted to rear them as much time as they could rather than have them in the foster care system.
      Yes, I also miss those great actors you mentioned especially Heath. I saw ‘The Joker’ today with River’s brother Joaquin. Joaquin as expected delivered a wonderful performance, but I couldn’t help but think of Heath throughout and his posthumous Oscar winning performance.

  5. selizabryangmailcom says:

    Yeah, foster care would be horrendous. I guess they had to hold on as long as they could.

    The Joker! I imagine he was really good as usual. How could both brothers have so much talent, I wonder. They grew up in a commune, I think, when they were younger….. maybe it was a really creative place.

    • Yes, I don’t know how common it is – whether acting talents runs between siblings. I had heard that the family lived in a comune. The Phoenix family background would be an interesting one to delve into. I imagine River spent most of his days as a prepubescent / adolescent and young adult on set and in rehearsals. I’m guessing his family back then mainly consisted of media, production and actor types. But I’m only hazarding a guess.

      Just finished reading this. His early life in the Children of God cult is very disturbing. He never had a formal education.

  6. selizabryangmailcom says:

    Thanks for the link. That’s really sad. Man, the fake parents in Nowhere to Run were a thousand times better than his real parents! I’ve had brushes with cults and would never involve a child in one. Of course, I guess if I *drank the kool-aid* fully and completely, I wouldn’t be able to make rational decisions about things like that.
    Very sad. He got up and out and prevailed…. then died tragically young anyway.

    • It’s tragic isn’t it? I suppose it makes his highly acclaimed performance in ‘My own Private Idaho’ all the more significant, but I’m afraid I still haven’t seen it. Those brushes with cults you had must have been eye opening. I’ll never forget seeing that ‘Jonestown’ documentary whose horrid audio recordings and images of the kool-aid will always stay with me. It shows you how Religious fanatism and ideology can make ordinary decent folk do the most wicked things.

  7. selizabryangmailcom says:

    I know, I haven’t seen My Private Idaho either! Seems like such a downer, I’m not up for being depressed, I guess……
    Yeah, the Jonestown massacre was one of the worst, especially because the psycho leader was lecturing people about being brave while they died (horribly from poison) and then he got a nice, quick bullet to the head later.

  8. selizabryangmailcom says:

    Haha. What uplifting topics, huh, lol! 🙂

  9. selizabryangmailcom says:


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