Sidney Lumet guided the late great River Phoenix to an Oscar nomination for “Running on Empty,” the sensitive 1988 film about family and politics that the invaluable Warner Archive DVD-on-demand program retrieved from video limbo.
In addition to showcasing one of Phoenix’s best performances, the movie gave top-billed Christine Lahti one of her strongest roles during the brief period in the late 1980s when she moved from picture-stealing supporting work in films like “Swing Shift” and “Just Between Friends” to starring roles in offbeat major studio projects such as “Housekeeping.”
Lahti and Judd Hirsch play a 1960s radical couple who have been on the run since they bombed a napalm lab in 1971. The movie starts at the point 17 years later when they realize the fugitive lifestyle is taking a terrible toll on their two sons. Phoenix plays the older boy.
Naomi Foner is a largely unsung screenwriter who has crafted intelligent, morally complex movies with strong roles for women — ranging from “Violets are Blue” to “A Dangerous Woman” and “Losing Isaiah.” Perhaps because of her interest in intimate, character-driven stories she has never had a major box office success.
“Running on Empty” earned Foner an Oscar nomination for a movie that expands on the usual parent-child separation trauma by forcing the Lahti and Hirsch characters to realize they have imprisoned their children in a criminal mess, but that if they set them “free” they will probably never see each other again.
In an interview, Foner said, “Parenthood is the only love affair in which separation is a happy ending” — a motto which some of today’s hovering, over-protective parents might want to take to heart.
River Phoenix had the same sort of emotional transparency that made Montgomery Clift and James Dean such distinctive movie stars — they were all men willing to fall apart on screen. The character Phoenix plays in “Running on Empty” is a gifted pianist who is taken under the wing of a music teacher in the New Jersey suburb where the fugitive family lands after fleeing their last false identity.
The teacher orchestrates a successful Juilliard audition for the boy who then has to decide if he will crush his own dream to keep the family together. The situation is further complicated when the boy falls in love with the music teacher’s daughter who is played wonderfully by Martha Plimpton.
“Running on Empty” builds slowly and surely to two big emotional scenes — when Phoenix decides that he must be honest with the girl he loves and tells her the family secret; and a devastating scene in which Lahti meets with her father (the great character Steven Hill, who died recently) for the first time in a decade to ask him if he will let the boy live with him in New York while he studies at Juilliard.
Lumet’s decision to keep things low key for the first half of the movie pays big dividends during these two scenes, especially the restaurant encounter between Hill and Lahti when the woman realizes she is about to fully understand the pain she inflicted on her parents by disappearing.
It’s an amazing scene in which we get to see an entire family history — and a very painful part of modern American history — played out in the course of a few minutes. Lumet rehearsed, staged and cut this scene with great precision.
The ending of “Running on Empty” feels slightly anti-climactic after the restaurant arias, but it’s nice to have this little gem back in circulation again.