copious notes

Rich Copley: When movies run long, it's tough to find that kind of time

Herald-Leader Culture ColumnistDecember 23, 2012 

With Christmas week here, I am looking forward to finally making a date with our 16th president and Middle-earth.

The movie Lincoln, of course, has been out for more than a month, but I've yet to see it. Last weekend, I was one of the potential (but, in the end, absent) viewers of The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey who kept it from bringing in more than its disappointing $84.8 million opening-weekend box office.

I was psyched to see director Peter Jackson's latest vision of a J.R.R. Tolkien classic, but there were family events to attend to, gifts still to buy and other holiday responsibilities. What with the job, the kids' school activities and other demands, it was hard to come up with the time to take these cinematic journeys.

Why? Lincoln is two hours, 30 minutes. The Hobbit is longer: two hours, 49 minutes.

Then there's Les Misérables, another movie on my to-see list. It opens on Christmas Day and runs two hours, 37 minutes. And that's not counting the 10 to 15 minutes of commercials, previews and turn-off-your-cell-phone messages tacked on to the front of features these days.

But this is just part of the contemporary holiday movie season: Prestige flicks stalk for awards, opening just days before the Academy Awards' Dec. 31 deadline, and challenge our appointment calendars and bladders with their running times.

I started thinking about extensive movie running times while writing recently about performances of Handel's Messiah and how Lexington music directors edit that epic piece to make it more palatable to audiences. The top reason they give is that Messiah is nearly three hours in its entirety. Nobody wants to sit through something that long, the directors think.

Steven Spielberg and many other film directors clearly have a different idea. More and more, it seems, any film with a tinge of gravitas runs well over two hours.

Even comedy and action movies, genres that traditionally use 90 to 120 minutes as their standard, are succumbing to the trend. Judd Apatow's new movie, This Is 40, runs two hours, 14 minutes. I love James Bond movies, but I could have trimmed 23 minutes from Skyfall to get it down to two hours.

Certainly there are stories that take several hours to tell. The Godfather is two hours, 55 minutes. I wouldn't begrudge Francis Ford Coppola a frame. It needs to be that long to accomplish its storytelling goal.

But we all have had those experiences of sitting in a theater trying to see our watch in the dark, wondering, "Did they hire an editor for this movie?"

That seems to be a rap on The Hobbit. The review we published in Weekender and on LexGo.com, written by Cary Darling of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, said The Hobbit "feels every one of its 169 minutes." That assessment helped wave off me and several friends on opening weekend.

Particularly with The Hobbit, the runtime seemed gratuitous. The Lord of the Rings movies, Jackson's first visit to Middle-earth, were based on Tolkien's massive trilogy of novels. But The Hobbit is a slim book, about 300 pages. Turning it into three movies — parts 2 and 3 are due in 2013 and 2014 — that run nearly three hours each is a stretch, literally.

I have not heard the same complaints about Lincoln, which despite its length is getting some of the best word-of-mouth reviews of any movie in a long time.

These run times seem to hark back to that "classic" model of entertainments that last all evening, that you somehow earn more prestige with a movie that's as long as an opera or one of Shakespeare's unabridged plays. But the thing is, those forms of entertainment were created in less-busy eras, when audiences thought three hours was getting their money's worth.

That's not the case now.

In the early to mid-2000s, when I was reviewing movies, more and more films began ticking toward the three-hour mark. Besides yearning for shorter run times, I remember longing for the return of something else: the intermission.

Maybe I'm conditioned by seeing a lot of theater, where intermissions are the norm, but if I feel a need to get out of my seat, I far prefer an assigned time for a bathroom break than trying to guess when it would be a good time to bow out for a minute.

Movie intermissions used to be standard fare. Gone With the Wind was four hours but included a 15-minute break. At three hours, 11 minutes, the 1982 film Gander was reportedly the last mainstream film with an intermission.

Of course, nowadays, we have an app called RunPee, which advises moviegoers of the best time to take a break and gives a synopsis of what was missed. (The app's slogan: "Because movie theaters don't have pause buttons.")

I might download it before going to see Lincoln, The Hobbit, Les Misérables and other films, including Zero Dark Thirty (two hours, 37 minutes; due Jan. 11). Still, it strikes me as strange that Hollywood drops some of its longest offerings during the overscheduled, hectic holidays, when it is least convenient for many people.

Then again, I guess studios really aren't thinking about my schedule when they release movies.

Rich Copley: (859) 231-3217. Email: rcopley@herald-leader.com. Twitter: @copiousnotes.

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