“The Runner” is the perfect entertainment for gullible optimists who are suckers for a good speech. Nicolas Cage’s fictional congressman Colin Pryce might have even won my support with his speech on the aftermath of the BP 2010 Louisiana gulf coast oil spill. But writer-director Austin Stark could not come up with a second speech, so when the time came for the character to deliver a second inspirational speech, they simply cut to the next scene, a common recourse of writers who are not up to the task of topping themselves. The script for “The Runner” relies on such leap-frogging. The writer is also fearless in jumping to the next scene when when he lacks the wit to meet an aggressive comment with a memorable comeback line. In real life, scenes are played out to the end. They don’t skip over the lines that are too difficult to write.
We have all been told countless times that the sixties are over, so we can no longer expect to see any thoughtful political films such as “Dr. Strangelove,” “The Best Man,” “Advise and Consent,” or “Medium Cool.” Even during the Reagan-Bush era, which spanned the years 1981-2009, with an 8 year hiatus for Bill Clinton’s frat-boy party, there was room for politically astute movies such as “Under Fire,” “Salvador,” “Missing,” “Team America,” “The Corporation,” “They Live,” and “The Killing Fields.” Today there is little else besides some smart-ass Michael Moore bullshit tirades.
But “The Runner” skins its knees right down to the bone. This is a political fairy tale for those who believe a politician can be an alcoholic whore-fucker and still be justified in representing the people, the certainty of his moral superiority intact. It is a movie for those Democrats who might believe Bernie Sanders the better candidate in 2016, but will support Hilary Clinton instead, because they believe it when they are told she has a better chance of defeating the Republican opposition. The Republican opposition? What Republican opposition? The Democrats will win the presidency in 2016 regardless of whom they decide to put into office. And they have promised the office to Hillary Clinton so long ago that she believes it has always been her destiny to be the country’s first woman president.
The only way to keep her out of the White House would be for Democrats to threaten to vote Republican if Clinton ran. But again, this is not the sixties. Voters are not about to disrupt the Democratic Convention with a demand for the candidate of their choice. In their docility, they will throw their vote to Clinton, and if you think she was a bad Secretary of State, just wait until she becomes chief executive. And really, there is no way to prevent this from happening, unless the FBI makes a third party intervention and throws her ass in prison.
Somehow I feel that if we were watching some political movies that offered some insight, some truth, or even just some food for thought, the country would not be facing this crisis of political indolence, this intellectual torpor that mutely accepts the presence of bitches and bastards in the highest seats in the land. I am not speaking of the current president, but of the random senators and congressmen such as the one played by Nicolas Cage in “The Runner.”
Colin Pryce’s initial conversation with Mark Ravin (Bryan Blatt), who offers to back him in a run for the Senate if he will compromise his “green” ideals with business concerns, substitutes meaningless and trite buzz phrases such as “sustainable resources” for words that are true to their own meaning and say something relevant to his idealized program of phasing out oil in America’s energy menu. Pryce’s true nature is first glimpsed in a scene with Lucy , the African-American fisherman’s wife with whom he has been having an affair that is about to break wide in the gossip rags.. He is unconcerned with the well-being of the poo-faced crybaby he has been using as a sex toy. When he gets home, Deborah, his wife and career partner of twenty-five years make mention of his past affair with Lucy, and he acts like that has been over for some time.
Connie Nielson plays Deborah like a Medusa-headed Lady Macbeth, all stiff with suppressed verbosity, a third-rate Joan Allen in her Pat Nixon mode. As a first-time director, Stark is unable to modulate her performance, or even place the camera in an effective position. He emphasizes the worst in her performance, such as her stiff neck and flailing arms. Sometimes a careful measure of awkwardness can result in a documentary realism. Here it only draws attention to the soap opera level of the acting.
Peter Fonda, as Pryce’s father and a former mayor, fares better, if only because he is so old and stiff that he couldn’t get out of character to save his life.
The problem for Pryce is not so much the affair, as he is a dedicated philanderer in the grand tradition of FDR, JFK, and WJC, but that is so consumed in his own problems that he no longer has time for the people he is supposedly representing. His wife sues for divorce because of his defeatist attitude. While everyone else is scrambling to remedy the situation brought on by the oil spill, Cage is reprising scenes from “Leaving Las Vegas.” One of his whores looks like a transvestite version of the fisherman’s wife, while his career consultant, not yet divorced but recently separated, is in line to become his new comfort woman.
Stark’s direction is so lazy that he doesn’t even notice an actress mispronouncing “modicum” with a long o. He also assembles one of the lamest montages I have seen in recent film. Pryce is doing his running routine along the shoreline, which is superimposed over a series of post oil-spill activities in which he is not engaged. Finally, while stooping to catch his breath, a black runner overtakes him. A very unsubtle message that whitey needs to get his ass out of Louisiana politics, and one that has been alluded to several times during the course of the film.
But Stark doesn’t really give a damn about the racial subtext he halfheartedly tries to weave into his saga. His ambition is to chronicle the politician’s decline into greatness, and I wish he had been capable of achieving it. And despite his clumsy laziness as a writer and a director, he does leave us with something to think about. As Pryce shares with the common man his newly discovered philosophy that life is all a compromise, he regains the love of his shrew wife and loses the admiration of his idealistic mistress, who returns to her husband to try to fix the marriage. This is all so pat and trite that I wanted to give it the finger and be done with it, but then the deep truth of it all hit me. People hear that first speech and want so much for it to be real that they refuse to believe in the frailty of the man who speaks it. Later, when his frailty has been replaced with a living stream of uncut bullshit, they believe in him even more. They admire his strength, his commitment, and his greatness….even when his ass is sizzling in Hell’s frying pan.