Racing With the Moon
Directed by Richard Benjamin
Starring Sean Penn, Elizabeth
McGovern, and Nicholas Cage
By Byron L. Bull
N THE opening scene of Racing with
The Moon we see Sean Penn walking
down a country railroad track, a
cigarette dangling loosely from his lips,
as he comes across two boys laying
nickles on the tracks in front of an ap-
proaching locomotive. He stops, wat-
ches the train roar by, and the boys run
off with shiny oblong blobs, staring at
him like he was from another planet.
Right away it's obvious this is going to
be another bittersweet coming-of-age
mood piece. -
This second directoral effort by
Richard Benjamin (My Favorite Year)
is a low-key comedy/melodrama about
friendship and romance in the second
year of WWII. A time when the gover-
nment was literally emptying whole
towns of its young men, many as young
as 17, for the service.
For a lot of the boys is was adven-
turous. For many of the girls it meant
going through adolescence with an ac-
cute shortage of the opposite sex.
Overall, nationalism was probably at
its all-time high, with people decorating
their living rooms with patriotic
The screenplay, by 23-year-old UCLA
graduate Steven Koves follows two
boys, Hopper and Nicky, played by
Sean Penn and Nicolas Cage repsec-
tively, who are waiting out their last six
weeks at home in their northern
California town before they have to
report for duty. Hopper is an ungainly,
shy kid who spends a lot of his time
alone, walking by the coastal cliffs.
Nicky, on the other hand, is a shallow,
smarmy and abrasive kid with a cock-
sure, self-centered attitude. Not having
much of a family he sees going into the
war as an escape from the town.
Both share an almost fatalistic ob-
session with girls. Nicky wants merely
to get laid as much as possible while he
has the chance, while Hopper longs
achingly for romance and intimacy.
Someone to whom he can write home
and whose picture he can carry in his
As if by providence he stumbles into a
relationship with the new girl in town,
Caddie, played with quiet grace by
Elizabeth McGovern. Penn and
McGovern have a nice, low-sparked
chemistry, as they nervously kiss,
clumsily hold hands, and look at each
other with a sweet sense of awe. Penn,
a chameleon of an actor, gives a solid
portrayal of a small-town boy who
walks off balance with his shoulders
hunched forward and a perpetual
double take on his face. He is an actor
capable of filling his characters with so
many little nuances, twitches, and un-
conscious mannerisms, that watching
him is like watching a real character
caught off guard on film.
McGovern, while lacking in great
range, has an offbeat but natural war-
mth, similar to her role in Ordinary
People, only more matured.
Sadly, Klove's screenplay affords the
two little to do with their characters. In
his attempt to capture a sense of idyllic
innocence in the story, he's resorted of
old formulaic devices. His dialogue is
often just a bit too eloquent for rural,
middle class kids. The structure of the
story is just one long row of short in-
cidences, none of which serve to push
the movie forward, and only
marginally define characters.
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Nicky gets his girlfriend pregnant,
and takes her to a sleazy mobile home
set up for an abortion. Hopper,
disgusted at his friend's lack of remor-
se or even basic sympathy for the girl,
ends the friendship.
But a few short scenes later they're
back together, with Hopper saying to
Nicky, "We gotta stay together, man."
Though there's no reason for him to feel
that way, except that Klove's apparen-
tly subscribes to those romantic old
ideals of male comradery.
Most of the characters are sketched
rather stereotypically. Hopper's dad is
the gentle, supportive, philosophical
type. His mom does little more than
worry about her baby going off to war.
Even Nicky's attitude is blamed away
in a contrived, pseudo-psychological
manner, with his mother dying when he
was young, and his father a drunkard
who abuses him.
Benjamin's direction is on the whole
numbingly conventional, if not outright
outdated. He has no eye for texture or
atmosphere, no sense of how to make a
film come alive sensually.
A late-night train hop through the
countryside by the boys lacks any
exhileration because Benjamin and
cinematographer John Bailey shoot it
matter-of-factly, with no flair in the
angles or lighting. When Hopper and
Caddie make love for the first time it's
nothing but a series of softly filtered
close-ups of their faces in ecstacy set
against a candy-sweet -piano score.
What should have been a poignant
scene is absolutely maudlin.'
The one scene that does have vitality,
where Hopper and Nicky try to pool
hustle a couple of sailors and have the
tables turned on them, owes its ex-
citement not to the physical staging,
but to tight editingkand adpounding
swing soundtrack, and basic
Benjamin directs scenes as though
her were directing a stage play. As an
actor he's obviously learned the basics
of the craft but he has no intuitive sense
for the medium he's working in.
Benjamin has to learn that you can't
cram charm down an audience's
throat, you have to carefully evoke it
with wit and, a sensitive cinematic
touch. You can't put your actors in
front of sunsets, have them talk about
love, and expect to pull it off so easily.
As it is, Racing With The Moon is a
softhearted film that, aside from two
strong performances, has little to offer
as anything more than a very light date
movie, at best.
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