Judge Mitchell Hattaway's review takes us back to the days before Sean Penn lost his sense of humor, Nicolas Cage started cashing checks from Jerry Bruckheimer, and Elizabeth McGovern stopped taking off...uh, never mind.
It was 1943, and young men were counting the days before they went off to war.
Twenty years after its theatrical release, Racing With the Moon is now available on DVD. Does it warrant your time and money? Let's take a look.
Facts of the Case
In the small coastal California town of Point Muir, Hopper (Sean Penn, Mystic River) and Nicky (Nicolas Cage Windtalkers), high school seniors and long time best friends, are counting down the days until they begin Marine Corps basic training. They seem oblivious to the dangers they'll face in the war until Hopper falls for Caddie (Elizabeth McGovern, Ragtime), the mysterious new girl in town. For the first time in his life, Hopper seriously begins to think about his future.
Racing With the Moon was one of screenwriter Steve Kloves's earliest efforts, and it shows. Kloves was in his early twenties when he wrote the script, and, having not lived during the times depicted in the film, he was apparently forced to draw inspiration from other World War II-era films. Racing With the Moon doesn't evoke the era as much as it evokes other films about the era. Its characters and situations are all too familiar and you can see early on exactly where this story is headed. (Kloves generally has more success with screenplay adaptations—Wonder Boys, the Harry Potter films—than he does with original works—Flesh and Bone—and this film is no exception.) Nicky is a horny hot-head with a troubled home life, and his girlfriend's parents don't approve of him. Hmmmm…think his girlfriend will end up pregnant? If Nicky is the more impulsive of the two, then Penn's character has to be the balancing force, right? Yeah, you guessed it. Hopper is your standard closet intellectual, the kind of guy who could make something of himself if he could only get out of his one-horse hometown. Hmmmm…think the new girl in town will see Hopper for what he really is? A number of scenes feel forced and contrived. The visit to the back-woods abortion clinic, meant to be a turning point in Nicky's life, instead seems like nothing more than a setup for the scene in which Penn discovers the truth about McGovern. (This truth is rather cleverly imparted to the audience through one word of dialogue early in the film, but the scene in which it is revealed to Penn is a botch.) Hopper and Caddie make a trip to a veterans' hospital, and Hopper meets a soldier named Frank (Michael Madsen, Species); Frank lost his right leg in combat, and his speech to Hopper about his loss is heavy-handed and unnecessary. The same message could have been conveyed with little or no dialogue. The final two scenes in the film are so cloyingly sweet I think I developed a couple of cavities while watching them, but maybe I'm just a cynic at heart.
Director Richard Benjamin (the first film he directed was the excellent My Favorite Year, and he's been on a downward spiral ever since) doesn't really bring anything special to the table; he seems to be simply shooting what's on the page. He hasn't made a truly bad film, but he has made a rather bland one. He also could have easily trimmed twenty minutes from the running time; this is a bit of a long haul for a trip with such an oft-visited destination. Many of the scenes go on too long; the most noticeable example is the scene in the pool hall, in which Hopper and Nicky try to raise money for Nicky's girlfriend's abortion by hustling a group of sailors. The ultimate outcome of the scene is a forgone conclusion, so there's no reason for Benjamin to let it drag on. The film has no real energy; it just sort of meanders its way to the finale. Early in the film there's a nice scene in the bowling alley where Hopper and Nicky work as pin monkeys; Hopper punches a rich kid who's been taunting him (the rich kid is played by Crispin Glover of Back to the Future fame and Late Night With David Letterman infamy) and bloodies the guy's nose. There's a life and spark to that scene that's missing from the rest of the film.
The film's one truly outstanding quality is the acting. The three leads are all very good, and a fine supporting cast aids them. Worth singling out are John Karlen (Cagney and Lacey), who plays Penn's father, and Carol Kane (Scrooged), who appears all-too-briefly as a prostitute who lives near the bowling alley at which Hopper and Nicky work. Shawn Schepps (Linda Hamilton's annoying co-worker in The Terminator) puts in nice work as one of Caddie's friends, as does Michael Talbott (Switek from Miami Vice), who portrays one of the sailors Hopper and Nicky attempt to hustle.
Paramount's efforts on the audio/video end are disappointing. The transfer is a mixed bag; interiors look okay, but exterior shots are incredibly soft. A little softness can imbue a film with a nostalgic feel, but the picture here is entirely too soft. At times it looks like someone smeared Vaseline on the lens, and I'm not sure this is what cinematographer John Bailey (Silverado) had in mind. The audio, available in a 5.1 remix or in a remastered mono track, fares a little better, but not much. The 5.1 track exhibits dated fidelity, especially in the dialogue, which sounds rather hollow. Dave Grusin's excellent score (he would later compose the music for The Fabulous Baker Boys, Kloves's directorial debut) is well-represented, as are the period songs on the soundtrack (it's only during these songs that the surround channels and subwoofer become active), but it's not enough to make up for the other flaws. Extras include three featurettes chronicling the film's path from conception to release, as well as a commentary track from director Benjamin. The commentary is rather dry, and there's a lot of dead air (at times Benjamin has trouble remembering details from the film's production), and much of what Benjamin says is repeated in the featurettes.
I'm either too cynical or too critical (it's probably a bit of both), but Racing With the Moon didn't do much for me, although I imagine many people will find it charming and sweet. If you're already a fan I'd suggest renting the DVD before going in for a straight purchase, as this will allow you to decide whether or not you can live with the audio and video flaws.
I guess maybe Racing With the Moon has its heart is in the right place, so let's go with guilty, but with the sentence commuted to time served. Paramount, however, is definitely guilty of shoddy workmanship. Court is adjourned.
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Scales of Justice
• Commentary by Director Richard Benjamin
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