“Running From Crazy,” the new documentary from Barbara Kopple, the Oscar-winning documentary filmmaker, opens with the film’s subject, Mariel Hemingway, and her daughter posing for a Town & Country photoshoot. This is a subtle first indication that our subject doesn’t lead your average life, in more ways than one. Of course, the Hemingway last name has tipped that off pretty quickly already, and the film delves into the weight of that legacy, as well as the hard-living and subsequent tragedy that has come to define the Hemingway name. The film’s focus is on the enormous effort that Mariel expends in order to differentiate herself from that tradition, but is the task too Sisyphean? This is a question that the film skirts, but never quite gets there, and the apparent avoidance is to its detriment.
The film sets its contemporary frame around Mariel and her family, composed of her outdoor adventure-loving, stuntman boyfriend Bobby, daughter Langley and model/actress daughter Dree (who starred in the indie hit “Starlet”). They wile away their days with yoga, trampoline jumping, rock climbing, healthy-food cooking and exploring the Idaho wilderness where Mariel grew up. The former actress also spends a lot of time doing philanthropic work for mental illness and suicide prevention charities. This is interspersed with family photos and home movies, and archival footage of her famous model sister Margaux Hemingway, in TV interviews and portions of the documentary she made about her famous grandfather in the 1980s.
Margaux explodes off the screen, her stunningly beautiful face starkly juxtaposed with her raspy voice, rambunctious energy and quick laugh. She is truly the star of this film, despite the lens that is trained on Mariel’s attempts to outrun crazy with her lifestyle choices (which can bluntly be called “rich white hippie bullshit”). And unfortunately the film’s focus on that aspect of Mariel undermines the story at hand, the film’s structure getting in the way of what is actually interesting about the film itself. A sequence of Margaux confessing in voiceover one of her darkest moments while she is in rehab is followed by an inscrutably long sequence where Mariel and Bobby get a flat tire while rock climbing and then have a fight. When they finally get over it and make their way up the cliff, it seems clear that this was all for the the visual metaphor of making one’s way over obstacles, but really, why are we watching this, and can we have more interviews with Margaux please?
What Mariel does bring so well to the film is an incredible openness, honesty and intimacy in her interviews. Her perspective is so necessary for making the film even exist, as she confesses often shocking family secrets and her own troubled relationships with her sisters (eldest sister Muffett suffers from mental illness and has assisted living in the Idaho town where they grew up; that the fact that she is still alive is revealed so late in the film is quite frankly, shocking, and seems like quite a misstep in the structure). Mariel puts in context so many of the family’s woes and is able to locate her own failings and anxieties well and honestly. With the level of her candor, it often feels like a therapy session. These moments help to situate Mariel as our sympathetic point of focus, but the dwelling on the other aspects of her life and lifestyle aren’t doing the rest of the film any favors. Perhaps if they were placed in a clearer call to action message about lifestyle choice and mental health, it would make sense. But we’re just left with the vague notion that Margaux’s idolizing of Ernest’s hard-drinking, adventure-filled lifestyle led her to die in the same way he did: suicide. To be honest, that she died on the 35th anniversary of his death was, just in a little way, romantic (and that doesn’t seem to be what the film wants you to take away).
There’s so much interesting material in the life of the Hemingways, but “Running From Crazy” doesn’t do them enough justice. That the structure consistently undermines its own storytelling is frustrating when the story to be told is a vital and interesting one. The focus on lifestyle and healthy living would be fine if it were made clear just what the point of all that rock-climbing is, except that perhaps instead of booze and bull runs, Mariel has focused her crazy on obsessive clean living. When her ex-husband Steve shows up, he is a refreshing bit of honesty, puncturing the air of self-importance around all of the manic activity. It seems like the film’s one self-reflective moment, and it’s all too short. [C+]