The 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill takes a back seat to the sticky personal and career complications of an idealistic Louisiana Congressman in “The Runner,” an earnest but lifeless political drama that makes an average hour of C-SPAN seem like “House of Cards” by comparison. One of the innumerable low-budget indies Nicolas Cage has turned to in a combined move toward career revitalization and tax-debt payback, this uninspired directing debut for producer Austin Stark (“Happythankyoumoreplease,” “Infinitely Polar Bear”) features solid work by its star but is far too staid and familiar to earn either arthouse prestige or the kind of cult that flocked to Cage’s 2009 Bayou State romp, “Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans.”
Cage reveals the same general desire to be taken seriously as an actor again here that was already on display in the recent “Joe” and “The Dying of the Light,” right from an early scene in which his Colin Pryce makes an emotional testimony before Congress about the impact of the BP spill on local fishermen and tourist business. That episode thrusts Pryce into the national media spotlight and, in turn, makes his longtime dream of running for the Senate into a plausible reality. But before he can even announce his candidacy, Pryce has big-energy fatcats nipping at his heels, none too pleased with the Congressman’s eco-friendly plans to bring an end to oil drilling altogether. Yet that seems a minor problem compared with the security-camera video of Colin canoodling with a married cheerleading coach that goes viral at the least opportune moment — a public embarrassment that further lowers the temperature on his already frigid marriage to Deborah (a wasted Connie Nielsen).
It’s all enough to drive a man to drink — an especially dangerous temptation for Colin, an alcoholic who’s been dry for the better part of two decades. And did we mention that Colin also has some serious daddy issues in the form of Rayne Pryce (Peter Fonda), a storied civil rights-era mayor who weathered his own share of scandals with his Teflon bayou charm (but always preferred the roar of the crowd to the company of his own family)? “You don’t have to be the hero. You just have to make it look good,” he offers by way of fatherly advice. (Comicbook aficionados will recall that Fonda previously played Mephistopheles to Cage’s Johnny Blaze in the ho-hum 2007 screen version of “Ghost Rider.”)
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To state the obvious: “The Runner” doesn’t lack for drama, but the characters are so thinly and predictably drawn, and the movie’s supposed insights into the art of political compromise so banal, that nothing catches fire — least of all Colin’s flirtation with the (married) campaign publicist (Sarah Paulson) who re-enters his life just as the missus gives him the boot. Despite a somewhat shaky Louisiana drawl, Cage brings an undeniable sincerity to the character that keeps the movie afloat for a while, but the material here doesn’t hold a candle to the actor’s own earlier portrayals of self-destructive men in crisis, including his Oscar-winning turn in “Leaving Las Vegas.”
Surrounded by pro collaborators including d.p. Elliot Davis (“The Iron Lady”) and editor Lee Percy (“Boys Don’t Cry”), Stark directs competently but impersonally in the manner one used to derisively call “TV-style,” before so much of TV became more cinematic than the movies.