Running on Empty (1988) - Rotten Tomatoes

Running on Empty1988

Running on Empty (1988)




Critic Consensus: No consensus yet.

Running on Empty Photos

Movie Info

In this family drama from director Sidney Lumet, Judd Hirsch and Christine Lahti play Arthur and Annie Pope, a pair of '60s radicals who have eluded the FBI for 16 years after bombing a napalm laboratory as a Vietnam War protest. This lifestyle involves continually moving their base of operations and establishing new identities, which is especially hard on their children, 18-year-old Danny (River Phoenix) and 10-year-old Harry (Jonas Abry), who can never amass a group of friends or an academic record. This last problem comes to the fore when they arrive in a New Jersey town where the high school music teacher (Ed Crowley) takes an interest in Danny's piano playing, encouraging him to apply for early admission to Juilliard. Danny yearns to follow this dream, but knows that separating from his parents would be a permanent break -- the aging hippies rarely even see their own parents, and can never inform anyone where they've moved. Arthur can't stand the idea of breaking up the family unit, which has provided the support that's allowed him to tolerate life on the move, but Annie sees her own sacrificed dreams in her son's prodigious musical talents, and begins pressuring Arthur to grant the boy his independence. Complicating factors, Danny has fallen in love with the daughter of his music teacher (Martha Plimpton), but can't allow himself to get too close to her, because he may have to leave again at any moment. ~ Derek Armstrong, Rovi

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River Phoenix
as Danny Pope/Michael Manfield
Christine Lahti
as Annie Pope/Cynthia Manfield
Judd Hirsch
as Arthur Pope/Paul Manfield
Martha Plimpton
as Lorna Phillips
Ed Crowley
as Mr. Phillips
L.M. Kit Carson
as Gus Winant
Steven Hill
as Mr. Patterson
Augusta Dabney
as Mrs. Patterson
David Margulies
as Dr. Jonah Reiff
Lynne Thigpen
as Eldridge St. Contact
Marcia Jean Kurtz
as School Clerk
Sloane Shelton
as Mrs. Phillips
Herb Lovelle
as Hospital Clerk
Bobo Lewis
as Home Economics Teacher
Ronnie Gilbert
as Mrs. Taylor
Michael Boatman
as Spaulding
Jenny Lumet
as Music Girl
William Foeller
as Man at Meeting
Carol Cavallo
as Woman at Meeting
Alice Drummond
as Mrs. Powell
Joey Thrower
as Catcher
Donna Hanover
as Reporter
Thomas Fraioli
as Violinist
Burke Pearson
as Julliard Man
Elzbieta Czyzewska
as Julliard Woman
Angela Pietropinto
as English Teacher
Jonas Abry
as Harry Pope/Stephen Manfield
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Critic Reviews for Running on Empty

All Critics (13) | Top Critics (2)

These are people who have made a choice and are living with the consequences, and during the course of the film they will have to re-evaluate their decisions.

January 1, 2000 | Rating: 4/4 | Full Review…

It's the Lumet film I like best.

May 17, 2011 | Rating: A- | Full Review…

Wraps around your heart and squeezes.

January 2, 2011 | Rating: 4/5 | Full Review…

River Phoenix gives an Oscar nominated performance as the teenage son of radical parents in Sidney Lumet's interesting but not entirely satisfying politicial melodrama.

June 18, 2005 | Rating: B | Full Review…

A touching, forgotten drama about a family of radicals still running from the consequences of their actions. River Phoenix, Lahti and Hirsch all are wonderful. A must-see.

September 20, 2003 | Rating: 4/5

One of the most poignant and edifying films made in the 1980s about the blessings and burdens of family life.

July 10, 2003 | Full Review…

Audience Reviews for Running on Empty

Annie Pope: What are we doing to these kids? They've been running their whole lives like criminals, and they didnt do anything!  "They chose their lives. Now their son must choose his." I seldom cry during a movie, and I never cry upon repeat viewings of a film. That is unless it is Running on Empty. There's two parts of this movie that I tear up at every time. There's the scene near the middle where the family and Lorna dance to "Fire and Rain" because it directly ties to the ending, which is the second scene I always tear up to. That scene in the middle is one of my favorite scenes of all-time, and easily one of the most touching. Running on Empty is also one of the most powerful films I have ever seen. Arthur and Annie Pope are activists that blew up a napalm plant in the late 60's. A mistake was made and a janitor was blinded and paralyzed. The two have had run ever since, with little to no contact with their parents. They have two sons, Danny, who is a senior in high school, and Harry, who is ten. The two kids have grown accustomed to leaving town and changing their identity and we are shown that right at the start of the film. We see Danny riding his bike home, where he spots cars posted up outside his house. He knows exactly what to do because he has had to do it before. The family leaves their house, their dog, and all their belongings behind. They make off for a new place to live, where they will have different hair colors and different names.  This film isn't about the parents or their mistake. It is about their oldest son, Danny. Danny has been moving around like this since he was two years old, so it isn't anything new to him. He is used to leaving friends and pets behind. He knows not to get to close to people or let people get to close to him. That all changes when he chooses music as his elective at the new high school he is attending. See, Danny is a very gifted piano player, and his music teacher takes a liking to him right away. Soon Danny takes a liking to the teachers daughter, and she likes him back. The teacher also is hassling Danny to apply to Juilliard, which isn't really an option because that would mean leaving his family behind, and possibly never seeing them again. It is a very character driven film. The father wants desperately for the family to stay together and does want to hear anything about Danny leaving them and going to college. The mother feels guilt for putting her kids through all this and wants to make it up to them. Both of them are great parents though. They have raised their kids with good, strong values, and you can tell from how they act that they have been raise well.  Running on Empty is underrated and under seen film. It is a Sidney Lumet film and really doesn't come up in the discussion of his best films. Everyone talks about Network and Dog Day Afternoon. I've always found it hard to choose between my favorite Lumet film. It's always been close between Dog Day Afternoon and Running on Empty. Well upon another viewing of Running on Empty, this is my favorite. It is so wonderfully uplifting, sad, and powerful. It is beautifully acted by everyone. River Phoenix gives a tremendous, Oscar nominated performance. In my opinion, he deserved the Oscar. Kevin Kline was great in A Fish Called Wanda, but the range of Phoenix's performance is astounding. Christine Lahti and Judd Hirsch are wonderful as the parents.  I strongly recommend everyone to watch this film. You may not have heard of it and it may not be the easiest movie to track down. But if you get a chance to watch it, take it. I don't believe you will regret it. Arthur Pope: Now, go out there and make a difference. Your mother and I tried. Don't let anyone tell you different. 

Melvin White
Melvin White

Super Reviewer

The moody, brilliant, and exceptionally mature River Phoenix shows us yet again why he was the in the forefront of our minds to become a classic actor.

Spencer S.
Spencer S.

Super Reviewer

I really like this movie a lot. Sure, it's mostly because of River Phoenix and his extremely deep performance, but it's really a different type of movie. I think the family on the run scenario works well here. Not knowing the whole story at first makes it such a suspenseful storyline. You have these almost scarily selfish parents who rob their kids of a life in order to escape police capture. While you ultimately feel sorry for them, you almost feel just as angry that Danny can't have any real emotional attachments or relationships.

Conner Rainwater
Conner Rainwater

Super Reviewer

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