Sunday 15 January 2023

Racing with the Moon (1984)

Director: Richard Benjamin
Writer: Steve Kloves
Stars: Sean Penn, Elizabeth McGovern and Nicolas Cage

Index: The First Thirty.

This one was completely new to me. I could be excused for not knowing about The Best of Times, as everyone involved probably tried to pretend it never happened. I’d seen Fast Times at Ridgemont High and Rumble Fish and I knew about Valley Girl, even if I hadn’t seen it. This film, though, I had never even heard of.

It’s another Sean Penn movie, though he’s a clear lead this time out instead of just through growing consensus in hindsight. Co-starring is Elizabeth McGovern as his romantic lead. And that leaves Nicolas Cage as the also ran on the poster, easily in the third most prominent role but not a particularly sympathetic one.

Racing with the Moon is a comedy drama but there’s a lot more drama here than comedy. It also counts as a period drama, but for a period that isn’t that long ago, because it’s Christmas 1942 when we start out and Hopper and Nicky are two young men in Point Muir, California waiting to be called up for war.

It’s no spoiler to suggest that they don’t get there in this picture, because it’s all about the six weeks they have before they leave and, in large part, how they choose to spend it. And, yeah, that translates to who they choose to spend it with. In Nicky’s case, he wants to land as much tail as he can before he puts on a uniform, but Hopper only has eyes for one girl, even if he’s yet to talk to her when we start out. In fact, when the local hooker, in the delightful form of a young Carol Kane, offers him “a free ride on the old merry-go-round”, he doesn’t take it.

Early on, our sympathies are with Hopper instead of Nicky. Penn underplays his part just as much as Cage overplays his, but that’s a fair approach for both of them, a mismatched pair of friends who work together at Al’s Bowl, not just manually setting the pins after each frame but even watering down the gin.

While Hopper isn’t afraid to punch out the entitled young bully played by Crispin Glover, he’s endearingly shy but confident as he tries to woo Caddie Winger. He leaves her flowers at the movie theatre kiosk where she works. When she comes into the diner he’s eating at, he leaps over the counter to give her a pie. He also jumps on the back of the bus she catches to see where she’s going home.

Cage is in many of these scenes too and he does well—he’s losing a little of the goofiness he had in his early films, growing into himself and acting pretty naturally too—but Penn is a clear lead and he gets all the opportunities.

It’s Hopper who follows his dream girl into the library to get her name, knocking over the religion aisle in the process. It’s Hopper who accepts a rollerskating date, even though she sets him up with her friend instead of herself and even though he can’t skate. It’s Hopper who takes her skinnydipping in a secluded lake he discovered during a treasure hunt.

However, Cage does get opportunities here and there and they start to show up more and more as the film runs on, albeit not in positive ways for his character.

It’s Nicky who wants to get an eagle tattoo on his chest before they leave, but he musters up his courage by getting drunk and they can’t muster up enough cash anyway. It’s Nicky who wants to race the train, in a tense scene given that they’re still drunk. Most importantly, it’s Nicky who gets Sally Kaiser pregnant and the consequences of that run deep.

Racing with the Moon was made in 1984 but it feels like a seventies movie, back when writers were trying to get their names onto the Great American Movie. It was the debut credit for a young writer, Steve Kloves, who went on to a number of much bigger gigs. His next job was to write and direct The Fabulous Baker Boys and he would go on to write all eight Harry Potter movies.

The director was Richard Benjamin, a more famous actor at this point than director, best known for Westworld and The Sunshine Boys, but he demonstrates a light touch as a director his second time out. He’d follow it up with a set of reliable films, from City Heat to The Money Pit to Mermaids.

As capable as Kloves and Benjamin are here, it’s really Penn’s show, with McGovern a firm support and Cage the wildcard who keeps the story from getting too understated. Whenever something serious happens, like Caddie taking Hopper to a hospital where she delivers books to wounded soldiers, prompting a deep scene with Michael Madsen as an amputee suffering from phantom limb syndrome, then a lighter hearted scene is sure to follow, usually led by Cage. In this instance, it’s Nicky pretending to sing Tangerine into a mop he’s supposed to be cleaning the lanes with.

As you might imagine, the six week wait for our boys to be drafted quickly shrinks and that prompts a shift in tone. Hopper and Caddie are good together, but understandable doubts do creep in. Nicky and Sally are a disaster, leading to more tense scenes—he gets a powerful but unsympathetic one while drink driving. It’s all serious now and Nicky just isn’t in the mood for livening things up any more, handing off to a sense of sentimentality.

It’s hard not to like Racing for the Moon, but it’s not the sort of movie I expect to remember for long. I’m expecting to look back after a few years and only have impressions.

Penn is excellent here in a role that’s about as different as could be comfortably imagined from Fast Times at Ridgemont High, and I expect that acknowledgement to be what stays in my head the longest. McGovern is a strong leading lady, but it’s very clearly a supporting role.

And Cage is growing into himself. While he was the lead in Valley Girl and he was the best thing about that film, it wasn’t a particularly challenging role for him. Arguably there was more depth to Smokey in Rumble Fish, but that was a small part in a film packed with talent.

He’s not the lead here either, but he gets more to do than he’d got thus far and he lives up to the challenge. He’s decent as the goofy young man who hasn’t really grown up yet, so treats life as a party, but he’s also decent as a more serious young man having to deal with the consequences of his mistakes, even if his character isn’t.

Was he ready to take on a difficult lead role? Maybe not quite yet but he had surely got out from under his family’s shadow and started a successful career on his own merits.

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