The Popes have a reclusive life-on-the-lam existence since, in their radical student days, mummy (Lahti) and Daddy (Hirsch) blew up a napalm factory and having been fleeing the Feds ever since. Now their 17 year-old son, Danny (Pheonix) is offered a prestigious music scholarship and they must deal with his participation in the world and the danger it may bring to their door.
What would it be like growing up "underground" with parents who have been fugitives on the run from the law for 15 years? It's an unusual premise for a superior family drama from Sidney Lumet, a director renowned for making entertaining films with a social conscience: Twelve Angry Men, Fail Safe, The Offence, Serpico, Network, The Verdict. Having previously explored the "sins" of dissident parents being visited on their children with the brave, ambitious, commercially disastrous Daniel, Lumet went for a more modest, accessible project on a related theme: "Why do you have to carry the burden of someone else's life?"
Arthur and Annie Pope (Judd Hirsch and Christine Lahti) are good parents, concerned citizens and a likeable, cultured couple. They are also on the FBI's wanted list. As student radicals during the Vietnam War they bombed a laboratory manufacturing napalm, unintentionally maiming someone in the process, and went underground to keep their infant son, Danny (River Phoenix). Now 17, Danny and his kid brother have been raised constantly on the move, trained to recognise pursuing agents, to change their names, hair colour and personal histories and to remain aloof from schoolmates for fear of betrayal. Necessarily tightly-knit, the family is faced with its biggest crisis when the gifted Danny is offered a prestigious music scholarship. What every parent and child experiences is intensified here — if Danny leaves home and establishes an identity he will never see his family again.
Threaded in thriller-style are enough details to make the Popes' mysterious lifestyle plausible — how Arthur assumes new identities and jobs, how they get the boys into new schools, cloak and dagger assignations with a network of sympathisers. But the centre of the film is Danny, torn between parents, budding romance with Martha Plimpton (an uncanny lookalike of her father Keith Carradine) and a chance for a good life in the "straight" world. Here River Phoenix, not yet 19 himself, enhances his reputation as the very best of a young bunch with an attractive, sensitive performance that earned him an Oscar nomination.spChristine Lahti is terrific as the mother suppressing her own losses and regrets; an angry, tearful scene in which she confronts her own father after 15 years of unforgiving silence is the most powerful in the film. Judd Hirsch allows his usual goody two-shoes persona to become progressively less sympathetic as the resentful outlaw losing his grip on the only thing he has, The Family.
Unfortunately, despite meticulous work from Lumet and the cast, Running On Empty cannot avoid sentimental cliches inherent in the situation. Like renegade Waltons, the Popes inevitably lapse into "I love you, dad" "I love you too, son" type conversations so familiar in American melodrama and guaranteed to make the more stoic among us snicker rather than blub. That said, the progress of young love is less hackneyed than in most teen pics, the performances are outstanding and those interested in the fate of people who acted on their beliefs and have to cope with the consequences will get pleasure from a solid modern weepie.
Despite Lumet's home-spun pincer movement on the espionage/conspiracy genres, cliché still sneaks up and nips the film into submission.