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Racing with the Moon

A World War II nostalgia piece with more than a passing resemblance to the oft-imitated Summer of '42 (1971), Richard Benjamin's Racing With the Moon (1984) nevertheless distinguishes itself as a lovely little gem of a motion picture thanks to a number of deftly understated performances and, most importantly, a keenly observant script by Steve Kloves. A mere 24 at the time of the film's release, Kloves was considered something of an industry wunderkind, known for writing with a maturity that belied his relative youth. This film marked his screenwriting debut, and from its first few scene — which finds the tale's teenaged protagonist Henry 'Hopper' Nash (Sean Penn) infuriating his piano teacher by injecting a boogie-woogie sensibility into his painfully staid Chopin recitation — it is abundantly clear that Kloves not only has an impressive command of his voice, but that he also knows not to overreach. The entire film is marked by this restraint, which, while limiting its emotional impact, also keeps it from veering into mawkishness. The narrative is modest, concerning Hopper's final carefree days before heading off to join the Marines. He works at a bowling alley with his best friend Nicky (Nicolas Cage), where they regale each other with their romantic travails, brawl with their bratty rich customers (they call them "Gatsbys", and the one singled out for a sock in the nose is played by a pre-bonkers Crispin Glover), and help their manager augment his gin ration by way of garden hose. While Nicky is currently stuck in a relationship with a girl whose parents remain stubbornly suspicious of him, Hopper finds himself taken with a mysterious new girl in town. Her name is Caddie (Elizabeth McGovern), and, when Hopper tails her on her way home one night after her shift at the local cinema, it appears she's a Gatsby. Though Hopper is from a working-class family — his father is a gravedigger — he's undeterred by his meager means and sets out to woo the beautiful, if somewhat matronly, Caddie. After all, with enlistment and its specter of death looming, what does he have to lose? Sure, it's an overly familiar story, but Kloves makes it his own through a handful of quirky touches (though some, like a dog sporting aviator goggles, flirt with tweeness) and nimble dialogue. As his later works, in particular The Fabulous Baker Boys, would bear out, Kloves has an unerring ear for dramatic writing, and it's a pleasure listening to his characters chat each other up even when, in this case, they're placed in an overly familiar milieu. Of course, it helps one's words are being enlivened by the talented likes of Sean Penn and Nicolas Cage, both of whom are a joy to watch. Hot off his flashier turns in Bad Boys and Fast Times at Ridgemont High, Penn plays Hopper in a minor key, which emphasizes the somber undertones of Kloves' script. Kloves may be a bit heavy-handed with the death symbolism — the boys love to play chicken with an onrushing train, Hopper discusses the war with his father while helping him dig a grave, etc. — but the way Penn adds subtle shadings of sadness to his otherwise buoyant character suggests that Hopper may not be returning from the war. This heavy sentiment dogs the picture throughout, giving it a deeper, more tragic resonance than may have been intended. It's certainly the most graceful and profound thing Richard Benjamin ever directed. Paramount presents Racing with the Moon in a nice anamorphic transfer (1.85:1) with solid Dolby Digital 5.1 audio. Extras are unexpectedly bountiful for this little-discussed title — that is, until one realizes that this was Paramount studio chief Sherry Lansing's first producing effort. On board are an enjoyable feature-length commentary from Benjamin and three brand new featurettes, which are hurt by the non-participation of Penn and Cage. Keep-case.
—Clarence Beaks

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