I don't remember precisely how thirteen-ish year old me got into River Phoenix. It's not a crazy concept - he's precisely the variety of tragic figure that many a young girl - then and now - will be drawn too. I'd imagine five years from now, they'll be a new contingent of Heath Ledger fans who don't remember him ever having been alive. But - however it happened - sometime in the mid nineties I went on a video rental spree and did my very best to track down every River Phoenix movie I could. Do you know how difficult it was to find an independent movie on video in the nineties? It took me the better part of a month to track down a copy of My Own Private Idaho and, let me tell you, that movie wasn't really made for thirteen year old girls. Netflix has spoiled us all. Regardless - Stand By Me and Running On Empty were easy finds in the local Blockbuster Video (Wow! What a difference).
Like every other human with a heart, I loved Stand By Me. I can thank that film for also beginning my Stephen King obsession - but that's another story. Running On Empty I had mixed feelings about. I found River Phoenix dreamy, Martha Plimpton annoying, and much of the film dull. Oh how time will change us all.
I've recently been reading Ebert reviews of random movies and somehow in the chain of clicking I got to Running On Empty. Ebert loved it and my thought was "Really? I don't remember thinking it was that great." Thirteen year old me didn't really know a good film when she saw one (hello Armageddon three times in the theatre).
This movie is fantastic. It's gut wrenching watching all these scenes between family members who can't be together. A son missing his mother's death. A grandfather learning he has ten year old grandson from the news. A boy delivering a pizza to his grandmother's house just to see what she's like. The situation of the film lends itself to brilliant scene after brilliant scene and it's all very moving.
River Phoenix really is terrific in this film. He portrays the easy liar so well. He can divert attention from himself in a number of ways and we(and the other characters) hardly even notice he's doing it. Yet, when he's home he's someone completely different. Someone concerned about his family, his mother in particular, who hates the lie but understands its necessity.
It's also an interesting family dynamic - one in which the mother has had the greater influence on her son. When he's asked which electives he wants to take, his immeidate response is music (like his mother - although we don't know that yet). His second choice, made only after prompting, cooking - like his father.
I clearly didn't see this movie for what it was when I was younger. To be fair - I still find Martha Plimpton annoying. Her harsh sarcastic style works when we're just getting to know her character, but she's not really one for the softer sentimental moements. When she cries, I roll my eyes. And the younger brother - geesh. I'm not surprised Running On Empty was one of only two films this kid was in.
But the rest of the cast is great and the story is moving. This has moved onto my buy it soon list. Check it out if you've never seen it. Even your local Blockbuster should have it.