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Film / Running on Empty

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"Why do you have to carry the burden of someone else's life?"

A 1988 drama film directed by Sidney Lumet, dealing with the difficult family life of the Popes, who've been running from the FBI for many years because parents Arthur (Judd Hirsch) and Annie (Christine Lahti) blew up a napalm lab in a protest against The Vietnam War. Together with their sons Danny (River Phoenix), now 17, and Harry they keep moving from place to place, assuming new identities every time in order to keep the authorities off their heels.

Loyalities are finally put to the test when Danny meets a dedicated teacher at his new school who wants to help him get into Juillard, where Danny can make some use of his gift for piano playing. Danny falls in love with the teacher's daughter, Lorna (Martha Plimpton), who makes him question his life and the relationship with his parents for the first time. In the end, he has to decide between his family and his future.

Having earned Academy Award nominations for Best Supporting Actor (River Phoenix) and Best Original Screenplay (Naomi Foner), this family drama is about responsibility, loyality and growing up.

No relation to the album and song of the same title by Jackson Browne, outside of its providing inspiration for the movie's title.

This film features examples of:

  • Beware the Nice Ones: The entire Pope family count. As does Lorna.
  • Code Name: The Popes put the name "Sam" on all of their birthday cakes because they change their names everytime they move.
  • Conflicting Loyalty: A central point of the plot.
    Danny: They need me.
    Lorna: I need you.
  • Cool Teacher: Mr. Phillips, Lorna's dad, who becomes Danny's mentor when he notices Danny's musical talent.
  • Gone Horribly Right: Arthur and Annie succeeded in blowing up a napalm lab as they had planned, but since they accidentally blinded a man who wasn't supposed to be there, this single act has forced them to keep running from the authorities for years.
  • Grammar Correction Gag: After Arthur tells Annie his mother passed away, he reminisces about how she once flew to see him on a moment's notice, even though she was terrified of flying, and when he told her, "I wish it was easier," she responded, "You wish it were easier."
  • Hypocrite: When Arthur refuses to let Danny go to a chamber music concert his teacher is hosting (that Lorna invited him to), Danny points out how full of it he's being, and when Arthur, upset, tells him not to talk to him like that, Danny points out, "Aren't we supposed to question authority? You taught me that!"
  • Keeping Secrets Sucks: Danny is sick of having to change his identity every few months. Annie has problems with it too, but copes in order to protect her family.
  • Kick the Dog: The Pope family abandons their dog in a parking lot in order to get rid of tracks leading back to them.
  • Long-Lost Relative: Annie is this to her parents. At the end of the movie she gives her son into their care.
  • Precision F-Strike: Arthur's reaction when Gus wants his help to rob a bank is, "Are you out of your FUCKING MIND?!"
  • Shirtless Scene: Danny while in bed and while dealing with drunk Arthur.
  • Soundtrack Dissonance: There's only soft piano music throughout most of the film.
  • Spy Speak: Arthur uses this to get the underground movement to help him by calling them up and saying, "The cat needs to be fed."
  • Stern Chase: Arthur and Annie are still being pursued by the FBI for their bombing after more than a decade has passed.
  • Wham Line:
    Danny: If you want to go back, that's fine with me.
    Lorna: You're a bully.
    Danny: No. I'm a liar.