There is an adage among lawyers that Sam Ervin, the former Senator, liked to cite: when the law is against you, refer to the evidence; when the evidence is against you, refer to the law. And if both are against you? "In that case," Senator Sam would say, "give somebody hell and distract the attention of the judge and jury from the weakness of your case." Now, in sports movies, it works this way: if your sport is against you, talk about the story. If the story is against you, promote your sport. And if both are wanting? Then distract the viewer by making a lot of fuss about how authentically your star comes across as an athlete.
Anybody familiar with how this game is played would have had a pretty good idea that Running was a turkey of a film when, weeks before it opened, gossip columnists breathlessly reported that real marathoners had swooned over how much Michael Douglas, 35 (above), resembled a genuine runner. Now it's not hard for any reasonably lean young biped to look like a marathoner; it's not the same as having to execute double-axels or sink 20-foot jump shots. So I'm really not terribly impressed when I hear that Bill Rodgers and Frank Shorter and other marathoners have been overcome by Mr. Douglas' ability to sweat. If only Running (plodding time: 101 minutes) had moved like an actual motion picture.
In spite of its dreary pace, I assume that Running has a chance at the box office. At the last estimate, there were 26 million joggers in North America, and past evidence indicates that this species fairly revels in tedious portrayals of itself. Moreover, Douglas has proved to be perspicacious in selecting intelligent and/or commercial material, and whereas his taste in the former has clearly deserted him in this instance, there are 26 million of the faithful out there. While my hunch is that Douglas has miscalculated here, too, and that joggers have no more interest in watching other joggers than fishermen, say, have in watching somebody else cast, I fervently hope that Douglas' commercial instincts are right again, so that we can get all these people off the streets and into the movie theaters.
But because the story is thin and it is tiresome to sit and watch actors running, the film simply cannot sustain its feature length. It might have been tolerable as a shorter TV movie, but jogging, despite its demographics, is not a popular enough activity to attract the broad, lowest-common-denominator ratings that television demands. Running had to go into movie theaters, where it is simply swallowed up by the big screen.
Running (why, pray, this sudden Hollywood passion for participial titles? See also Coming Home, Breaking Away, Starting Over) was written and directed—ham-handedly—by Steven Hilliard Stern. The dialogue reflects the depth and originality that Billy Martin employs in saloons, and characterizations are shallow. One must be thankful for the presence of Susan Anspach, the female lead, who alone is able to rise above Mr. Stern's contributions. With a beguiling mixture of whimsy and devotion, she adds some melody to what is otherwise an hour and 41 minutes of long, low moan.
Anspach plays the estranged wife of Douglas, a young fellow who can't seem to finish things. All he could ever do, it seems, is run. That is, we are advised, "his survival." In fact, though Douglas may well be a quitter, in Stern's movie he is also a sloth and a fool. Running is not his survival at all; it is his alibi, and that is something else' again. Rodgers and Shorter and their ilk are very determined, driven people.
For all the loneliness of the long-distance runner, for all his communion with dawn, his search for joy and inner peace, serious marathoners—and serious joggers, too, for that matter—are not, like the Douglas character, running to escape reality. Much of the current appeal of jogging seems to me to be vanity. People jog to look better and to feel younger. In this Me Decade, it is the perfect narcissistic sport. You jog at your own pace. Nobody orders you about. It is the most independent (and selfish) of all athletic endeavors. Both the hero of Running and the plot are implausible. There are a lot of things about Running that disqualify it as good entertainment, not the least being that it isn't authentic.