Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (July 26, 2017)
A fairly late in career effort from noted director Sidney Lumet, 1988’s Running on Empty introduces us to married couple Arthur (Judd Hirsch) and Annie Pope (Christine Lahti). During the Vietnam War, they destroyed a napalm factory as an act of resistance, a deed that accidentally resulted in a fatality.
The crime leaves them as fugitives and impacts their lives well into the future, as they can never settle in one place for too long due to fear of discovery. This “life on the run” wears on oldest son Danny (River Phoenix), as he craves more stability – even if that may mean he never gets to see his family again.
Though he made good films before and after that era, Lumet’s fame comes mainly from his work in the 1970s. With flicks like Network, Dog Day Afternoon and Serpico, Lumet scored plenty of successes that decade.
Lumet faltered in the 1980s, unfortunately. Actually, he started to slip earlier than that with 1978’s deeply flawed adaptation of The Wiz - a movie completely unsuited for Lumet’s talents – but his 1980s output comes with erratic output.
I do like 1982’s The Verdict quite a lot and Deathtrap has its moments. However, 1980s Lumet also produced the mediocre Prince of the City and the awful Morning After, so this decade shows a clear decline from the highs of the 1970s.
While superior to Morning After, I think Empty falls firmly in the “mediocre” camp with Prince of the City. Though it comes with some good moments and elements, the overall result lacks the necessary impact.
On one hand, I’m glad Lumet doesn’t play the story as a true thriller. Empty easily could become a Fugitive-style potboiler, a choice that wouldn’t suit its narrative. The movie prefers a character-focused path, and I like that choice.
On the other hand, Lumet doesn’t dig into the participants to a degree sufficient to sustain consistent interest. On the surface, the character-based orientation satisfies, but the movie fails to explore these roles well enough to really succeed.
Some of this stems from its lack of real plot clarity, mainly because it can’t quite decide who to spotlight. Early on, it seems that Danny will become the de facto “lead character”, and it’s true that his conflict leads to most of the movie’s dramatic development.
However, the focus shifts quite a lot as the film progresses and Danny fades more to the background. This doesn’t occur in a particularly natural manner, so it feels like the flick forgets about Danny and leaves him out too much of the time.
It doesn’t help that the characters never really become substantial. Danny’s side veers too much into teen melodrama, and Arthur remains little more than the standard “aging radical”. Annie comes across as the best realized, but even so, she’s not a particularly three-dimensional role.
The actors add some spark to the proceedings. Even though Arthur tends to seem shrill, Hirsch gives him humanity, and both Lahti and Phoenix display their characters’ inner conflicts well.
All of these factors make Empty a professional film that occasionally comes to life. However, it remains oddly bloodless too much of the time so it doesn’t turn into a truly compelling drama.
Ratings footnote: Empty features a surprising amount of profanity for a “PG-13” movie, as it provides a whopping 10 uses of the “F-word”. I suspect it’d nab an “R” today, but I guess the “PG-13” rating was new enough in 1988 that the MPAA leaned toward leniency.