Is it over Yet?

January 19, 2006
A thought by James Berardinelli

As I get older, I get crankier. I wonder what I'll be like if I live to be 70. Not that long ago, I could sit through a three or four hour movie without a word of protest. Thinking back, I don't remember having trouble with films like Gettysburg, Hamlet, Dances with Wolves, or Titanic. Today, though, hearing that a movie runs less than 105 minutes is music to my ears. The other day, as someone was ranting about the unnecessary length of Peter Jackson's King Kong, I began thinking about why I approach long movies with trepidation.

In theory, content should determine length. In reality, that's rarely the case. If it was, I probably wouldn't have a problem with longer movies. Many long movies should, in fact, be longer. Ridley Scott's Kingdom of Heaven is an example. The theatrical running time is about 2 1/2 hours, but it should have been well over three hours. Clumsy editing, designed to reduce the length, undermines the story. This happens a lot. That's why some extended cut DVDs are better than their bastardized cinematic siblings. Not having seen Scott's cut of Kingdom of Heaven (the DVD is rumored for the second half of 2006), I can't make a first-hand comment about its quality, but everyone I know who saw the longer version during its recent Los Angeles area screening claims that it's vastly superior.

Unfortunately, the majority of long movies are that way because the director's ego has gotten in the way of his editing sense. There are so many recent examples of this that I could write a dissertation, but let me pick two. The first is Cameron Crowe's Elizabethtown. What should be an enjoyable (albeit slight) romantic comedy is bogged down by minute after minute of lifeless, clich├ęd "family building" moments. 30 minutes of judicious editing would not only have brought the running length under two hours, but it would have transformed Elizabethtown into something enjoyable. (This isn't only my opinion - it's the opinion of almost everyone I have discussed the movie with.)

Then there's King Kong. The plodding first hour of the film is more than redeemed by the spectacular second two-thirds, but what if Jackson had taken a step back and made some hard decisions about editing during the interminable set-up? The movie would have been leaner, meaner, and a probable candidate for the top spot of my end of the year Top 10. The three hour King Kong is a tremendous cinematic achievement for monster movie lovers. A 2 1/2 hour version would have been heaven.

In a nutshell, that's the problem with many (not all) long motion pictures: they don't earn their length. They are longer than the story demands. While I'm willing to accept some slack for home viewing, where I can curl up on the couch in my home theater room, theater seats are not as forgiving. The only way I can be comfortable in a movie house for three hours is if the production has me in its grips for every minute. I need an out-of-body experience. Even the best movie theater seats start to feel hard beyond the two hour mark. When they don't enrapture you, three hour movies can become physical as well as mental endurance contests.

Movies of epic length can be great, but only when the story demands the extra minutes and the director earns the audience's investment of time. Too often, however, long movies feel padded. That's fine for home viewing. Consider the extra 17 minutes of lackluster footage added to the video version of The 40-Year-Old Virgin. In theaters, it would have pushed the already long running time into the unbearable range. But on the DVD, it's a minor irritant. In theaters, movies of epic length need to be of epic scope. Otherwise, all they will accomplish is to promote more trips to the bathroom and a lot of squinting in the dim light to see if one's watch is still working.

Roger Ebert has said that no good movie can be too long, and no bad movie can be too short. There's truth to this. But I might add that there are plenty of middle-of-the-road movies that could be good if they were shorter but are bad because they're longer. And that rule is as important to remember as the first one.