3. Racing With The Moon – Ben’s Take

Film poster for 'Racing With The Moon'
Another fine film poster from the ‘Fuck it, montage of floating heads’ school of thought

Christ. Ok, well, we knew when we started this that there were going to be some bad films, it’s pretty much a trademark of Nic Cage that he’s great in good movies, but he’s even better in bad ones. That said, I didn’t think there’d be any films so shockingly dull and charmless as this one. Racing With The Moon was released in 1984 to, well, not an awful lot of fanfare or reception of any significant kind whatsoever. One of the most positive audience reviews for the film on Rotten Tomatoes reads ‘A personal favorite. Now, this is a movie I don’t mind seeing every now and then.’ which is quite possibly the most wishy-washy recommendation I’ve seen since I put ‘unlikely to spontaneously combust’ on my online dating profile (you’d have thought I wouldn’t need to say it, but I’ve been burnt before).

The film stars Sean Penn as Henry ‘Hopper’ Nash. A teenager living in small-town America in 1942. He, along with his erstwhile buddy Nicky (played by Cage, naturally), live under the shadow of the war overseas as they go through the last six weeks before they are drafted into the Marines. Naturally, their thoughts turn to pussy, with Nicky romancing his girlfriend Sally while Hopper finds himself fascinated by new-in-town Caddie.

The film starts with a young Sean Penn, as yet unburdened by liberal angst, strolling nonchalantly along some railroad tracks. Curiously you see him spending more time walking along railroad tracks than pavements, which leads us to conclude that he either believes himself to be a steam train or the town planner was drunk. The film quickly establishes that Hopper is a play-by-his-own-rules, march-to-the-beat-of-a-different-drum kind of guy, as he smokes while glowering at children (I really, really hope this wasn’t an attempt to establish him as a badass, because it’s pretty pathetic if so) and disrupts his piano lesson by playing jazz (the devil’s music!). He then leaves for work and, on the way, becomes momentarily entranced by the sight of a young woman (Caddie, played by Elizabeth McGovern) dancing on some grass to the music in her head. These were more innocent times, so rather than think ‘Oh God, I bet she has a Tumblr where she constantly posts pictures of fairies eject EJECT’ he’s captivated.

After that brief interlude we are introduced to Cage’s character, Nicky, as Hopper goes off to his part-time job stacking pins at the nearby bowling alley. Much as in his previous two movies, Cage seems to have a lot of luck with the ladies, as Nicky is a horndog, determined to fill his last six weeks of civilian life with as much action as possible. In a move so brazen it has to be seen to be believed, after Hopper starts a fight with a local Gatsby Boy (slang for a rich boy, and played by Quentin Glover, no less), Nicky goes to mop the blood of the Gatsby Boy off his girlfriend’s blouse, before giving up to just grab her boob and then walk off. We had to rewind it to check that we really did just see what we thought we saw.

One of the most noticable things about Cage’s performance in this film is that his character clearly wishes he was in a much more exciting movie. He constantly attempts to derail the plot into wacky hijinx instead of the dull, meandering coming-of-age drivel we’re mired in, as if he can turn the film into American Pie through sheer force of will. It starts when he convinces Hopper to pretend to go on a double date with him with the local hooker, Annie, to convince his girlfriend’s father there won’t be any unsupervised funny business. There’s clear set-ups for some kind of wacky, high school gross-out comedy malarky but in a foreshadowing of later life, Po-Faced Fun Vacuum Sean Penn drags the whore out of there as fast as possible, before asking her if she wants to go for an ice-cream sundae and offering her a flower. Don’t fall in love with a hooker son, that’s just chump stuff.

Having been rejected by the hooker (although she offered him a free ride before he ships out, not a bad consolation prize) he goes to the movies and again spots Caddie, this time working in the ticket kiosk. Entranced, and clearly following Cage’s lead from Valley Girl, he decides to stalk her, starting by leaving the flower that Annie rejected on her kiosk (because nothing says romance like a daisy you tried to give to a hooker). He follows this up the next night with possibly one of the worst thought-out romantic advances since the Siege of Troy. He pays a small child to give her another ratty, just-picked daisy while he stares at her from a nearby diner. Then, when she comes into the diner to get something to eat, he vaults the counter and pretends to be staff. However, in a wacky! comedic! misunderstanding! he doesn’t know what he’s doing and describes the pie on offer as ‘brown pie’ before giving her the whole thing as cutting a slice of pie is a strange and otherworldly ritual that requires mechanical competence beyond the ken of most mortal men.

I think things like this are supposed to be jokes, but it’s genuinely hard to tell as they’re delivered like a brick through a glass window. No finesse, no charm, no warmth, just ugly shards of glass in your face and distant sounds of screaming as you look down to see your vital life’s blood pooling in your cupped hands. The terrible comedy stalking continues as he follows her into a library and knocks down a shelf of books and in another wacky! comedic! misunderstanding! gets himself invited on a double date before realising he’s supposed to be dating Caddie’s friend. Despite the date ending in more horrifingly zany antics at a roller rink, including Hopper grabbing a small child and careening his way out of the front door on rollerskates, Caddie is suitably impressed with him and allows Hopper to take him on a date. Hopper makes the most of this by taking her to a condemned, abandoned old bar in the middle of nowhere.

Ok, right, look. So far we’ve got terrible failed advances on hookers, stalking, not knowing how to cut a damned pie, accidental rollerskating child abduction and now he’s taking a girl to a remote locale that might as well have a sign hanging out front saying ‘Sean Penn’s Fancy Funtime Rape Palace’. SEAN PENN YOU ARE BAD AT WOMEN. Romantic leads being absolutely fucking terrible at courting a lady seems to be something of a theme running through the cage oeuvre so far, with Cage stalking his girlfriend in Valley Girl, Matt Dillon alienating and driving his girlfriend into Cage’s arms in Rumble Fish and now this. It’s definitely something to take note of in future Cage movies, I sense the beginnings of a motif.

Despite Hopper’s rather creepy romantic techniques, Caddie is soon infatuated to the point where she bones him in the middle of a lake. Once their relationship is established, the film is free to begin careening wildly between wacky comedy hijinx and plodding, heavy-handed melodrama, which it does so with gay abandon. It starts with Cage getting drunk, demanding that the only black man in the film give him a giant tattoo of an eagle on his chest to scare the ‘Japs’ and attempting to race a steam train before turning round and telling Hopper he got his girlfriend pregnant and now he needs $150 to get her an abortion. Wow. Sheesh. That, uhh… kind of came out of nowhere… awkward…

So following on from that, once more Cage does his goddamned best to drag us out of this suffocating, nostalgia-drenched shitstain of a movie into a more interesting one, leading to the best sequence of the movie, albeit one that has absolutely no meaning or effect on the plot whatsoever. Nicky convinces Hopper to help him raise the money for the abortion by hustling a bunch of Navy seaman (I’m sorry, but I will never not snigger at that) at pool. This leads to a genuinely fun and entertaining sequence as Hopper finds himself in an increasingly tense pool match with a Navy seaman (tee hee hee oh god im sorry im kind of drunk right now its the only way i could get through this) until he eventually loses and he and Nicky escape from the pool hall in the middle of a brawl. However, as this film is determined to shift tone faster than you can keep up with, this leads immediately into our poorly-thought-out second act roadblock to Hopper and Caddie’s relationship.

You see, Hopper thinks that Caddie is actually a Gatsby Girl (rich, if you remember from earlier) when she’s actually just friends with one. This leads to Hopper asking Caddie if they can borrow the money for an abortion. Despite not ever showing one single, microscopic iota of a fuck that he cares whether or not she’s a Gatsby Girl, Caddie is convinced that Hopper is only with her because he thinks she’s rich, so she attempts to rob her rich friend to raise the money. So now they finally have the money, they take Sally off for a nice, cozy, back-alley abortion in some guy’s trailer in a genuinely unpleasant sequence. Afterwards, on their way home, somehow the whole stupid ‘Hopper thinks Caddie is rich but she isn’t even though he doesn’t give a fuck either way’ issue manages to drive a wedge between the two of them, with Caddie revealing she’s not actually rich and storming off before Hopper gives Nicky an admittedly well-deserved dressing-down for his lack of responsibility.

So now we’ve brought the characters to their lowest point so that they can work their way out of this hole and earn their redemption, right? Nope! Turns out there’s only 10 minutes of the movie left, so rather than have the characters discover and learn about themselves to grow as people and learn to resolve their problems, Hopper has a 5-minute chat with his sage, grave-digger father. After some wise words of advice, Hopper rekindles his friendship with Nicky, because they’re bros, and gets back together with Caddie by, I dunno, giving her a map and sitting in a tree and waiting for her. It’s not the best plan, but considering the reasons they fought earlier didn’t even fucking matter in the first place it’ll do.

And just like that, the day of Hopper and Nicky’s conscription into the Marines has arrived. Cue tearful goodbye scene at the train station, Caddie gives Hopper a picture of her for his wallet, they are in love, etc etc etc. And so Hopper and Nicky depart the movie and make their way off to the most brutal, violent and devastating war recorded in modern history driven by prejudice and xenophobia by… chasing down the train, jumping on board and hanging off it grinning like goofballs while happy, jaunty jazz music plays and credits roll. A suitably tonally incongruous ending for the film.

I kind of front-loaded the review in this respect, but this is a crappy, crappy film. The jokes fall flat, if indeed they are jokes at all, the tensions and drama are either unconvincing and forced or heavy-handed melodrama coming at us out of fucking nowhere. Possibly the worst thing about this film is Sean Penn’s performance. Sean Penn is a fucking black hole of charisma. All around him that is good or interesting is sucked into him to be reduced to grey fucking crushing dullness. Cage tries, god help him he tries so hard. There’s barely-noticeable traces of the edgy, twitchy charisma he would exude in later movies and his character is constantly trying to jump-start the plot into some kind of pathetic semblance of life, but sooner or later it comes down to Sean Penn’s stupid fucking mopey face. The film is mired in nostalgia for some antiquated ideal of 40’s small-town America to the point where it feels as suffocating as it must have done to the young men and women living there, desperate to find some kind of life in the big city. Overall I just cannot recommend this to anyone. Avoid, avoid, avoid.

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