Annual Reminder: “Running on Empty” is A Thanksgiving Movie

Sidney Lumet’s Running on Empty (1988)

Sidney Lumet’s Running on Empty (1988) is weepy, heartwarming, and sentimental. It centers around a family of four, where life sucks and it gets worse from there, giving viewers a much-needed Thanksgiving vibe.

Running on Empty has become the staple of my teenhood viewing. It persistently sits at the back of my mind as the ultimate family-coming-together movie. There’s not much in the way of the narrative; fugitive parents are constantly on the run, relocating and undertaking new identities with the oldest son wanting to break free to secure his own future.

Annie (Christine Lahti) and Arthur Pope (Judd Hirsch) have taken on a secretive and nomadic lifestyle as they were in charge of the anti-war protest bombing of a napalm laboratory and accidentally injured a man 15 years ago.

Their oldest son, the musically gifted Danny (90s’ heartthrob River Phoenix) begins to find his own path; falling in love with his music teacher’s daughter Lorna (Martha Plimpton) and auditioning for Juilliard to pursue his passion as a virtuoso pianist. His decision is at odds with his loving folks particularly Arthur and it may impose risks on the family’s safety.

Despite major upheavals in the family, the majority of the film narrates its plotlines in a tender approach that stirs honest emotion. There’s a directly relatable scenario that affects me much after years of viewing; the birthday scene where the Popes and Lorna joyfully dance to James Taylor’s Fire and Rain. The scene is accomplished in one brief shot (without cuts!). With the camera remaining in a fixed location and framing five people at the same time.

The smooth voice of James Taylor

The smooth voice of James Taylor’s in an exquisitely soothing folk escalates into one emotionally-rewarding narrative. It warmly embraces the functioning of familial values including carving out family mealtimes in a time of distress. The family gathering is beautiful and somehow gains the momentum that they all are free while.

The chores and joys of preparing food, feeding, nurturing, and clearing the table invigorate bonding and incorporate gratitude. Sidney Lumet’s affectionate take on the scene distinctly comes clear on what it thinks about the trivial things people often overlook and take for granted.

It is a wonderful dining scene that perfectly resonates with the Turkey Day festivities.

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