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Racing with the Moon

Racing with the Moon
Paramount Home Entertainment
1984 / Color / 1:85 anamorphic 16:9 / 108 min. / Street Date November 30, 2004 / 14.99
Starring Sean Penn, Elizabeth McGovern, Nicolas Cage, John Karlen, Rutanya Alda
Cinematography John Bailey
Production Designer David L. Snyder
Art Direction Joseph Wood
Film Editor Jacqueline Cambas, Nicholas James
Original Music Dave Grusin
Written by Steven Kloves
Produced by Alain Bernheim, John Kohn
Directed by Richard Benjamin

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

A pleasingly thoughtful drama, Racing for the Moon's rather generic content is given life by some great acting from the up-and-coming Sean Penn and Nicolas Cage, both of whom had been previously seen in much less sensitive roles. The tensions of small-town boys going off to war are still being felt across this country and Harry Potter screenwriter Steven Kloves' script avoids dramatic clichés on the subject.

It's an early directing job by Richard Benjamin and perhaps his best; a production docu included on the disc (that's how to do it, Paramount) emphasizes the movie's special qualities.


Only a few weeks before their induction into the Marines, Henry Nash and Nicky (Sean Penn and Nicolas Cage) keep working their pinsetting jobs at the bowling alley while bad news comes in from Guadalcanal. Henry's mom (Rutanya Alda) insists he keep up with his piano lessons. Nicky is crazy to score with his girlfriend Sally (Suzanne Adkinson) before he ships out. The quieter Henry becomes enamored from afar with Caddie Winger (Elizabeth McGovern), thinking she's a 'Gatsby girl' from the rich part of town. His departure date draws nearer as their romance becomes more serious.

Racing for the Moon didn't generate much Oscar buzz in 1984 but time has been good to it, if only because thoughtful movies about the problems of average young people are so rare. The handsomely-shot film served mainly as a vehicle for the Fast Times At Ridgemont High alumni Penn and Cage, who soon became big stars. They both pass for 17-18 years olds even though Penn was already turning 24.

The production places our Marine Corps enlistees in a pleasant town on a beautiful stretch of atmospheric California coast. Neither has much money and Penn's Henry is elated when the supposedly rich Caddie returns his overtures. Caddie uses a then-popular smart girl's trick to assess Henry as a possible boyfriend, observing him during a sneakily-arranged double date with a friend. Revulsed by Nick's crude attitudes toward girls, Henry plays it careful with Caddie, impressing her with the classical piano piece he'd earlier refused to practice at home. Thus Henry and Caddie meet on the square and their dating soon develops into something far more serious.

Racing for the Moon's mid-section developments are well done, if overly familiar. Both couples go all the way and an unwanted pregnancy forces them all to face the adult world. The script handles the problem well enough although it might give the impression that an illicit abortion is a good option.  1 Less successful is Henry and Nick's attempt to raise the abortion money through a trick pool game with some older sailors - we see where that scene is going even before it starts.

What's best about Racing for the Moon is its atmosphere and good acting. Basically savaged in Once Upon a Time in America and Ragtime, Elizabeth McGovern has her most pleasing role since Ordinary People and retains her teenaged beauty. She's an imperfect looker with bright eyes and the kind of fuzzy cheeked smile that breaks hearts. Her scenes with Penn are terrific - they do marvels with straight-on dialogue nobody today would dare try: "I love you." "I love you."

Cage isn't quite up to Penn's quiet intensity but he's much less chaotic than he became in later roles. It's a pleasure to see Penn playing a nice guy with ideals, hopes and ethics as opposed to his frequent troublemakers and hellraisers. Henry relates well to his parents John Karlen and Rutanya Alda, maintaining his own privacy but also being a decent son. There's a farewell scene at the end that will choke up a big part of the 2004 audience. It's regrettable to see it marred by the gimmick, when the two boys run to leap on the back of a moving train. The movie didn't need a flashy upbeat stunt like that.

It's also fun to check out Carol Kane in a cute role as the local hooker, and a young Michael Madsen as a mutilated soldier back from the war. Michael Schoeffling plays another amputee; Benjamin would later direct him a major role in his unfortunate misfire Mermaids. Crispin Glover makes an appearance as a local rich jerk. Dana Carvey is said to play somebody called "Baby Face," but I missed him.

Paramount's DVD of Racing for the Moon is beautiful in an immaculate enhanced transfer, especially all of those windswept California ocean view cliffs. The film looks brand new. It has a relaxed commentary from Richard Benjamin that concentrates on the talent involved, and a three part docu with the director and producers (including Paramount chief Sherry Lansing) trading congratulations over their achievement. Quite a bit of it is justified. There's also good input from the still-beautiful Ms. McGovern, who lets us know that (shy smile) she was the well-behaved cast member, while Penn and Cage were the kind who equated stardom with wrecking motel rooms (laughter).

The movie never found a key advertising image and the cover has a collage of faces and action that still doesn't seem very interesting.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, Racing with the Moon rates:
Movie: Very Good +
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: director commentary, 3 part docu.
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: December 6, 2004


1. Given the level of ignorance about such matters in 1942 small towns, it's hard to understand where Henry is getting the good information that illicit abortions are extremely dangerous. You'd also expect most of the 'good girls' in town like Caddie and Sally to be totally in the dark as well ... this was all forbidden subject matter. Not that the movie needs to be like the hyper sensitive Blue Denim, where sex is so suppressed that boyish Brandon de Wilde seems incapable of getting aroused, let alone getting his girlfriend pregnant. Maybe Henry's small town is a big exception.

DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson

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