Super Summer Movie Fun Club, Go! members did their duty last week and saw the latest new release, You Don’t Mess With the Zohan. All we were expecting from Adam Sandler was a bad movie with a few genuinely funny moments, but Zohan skyrocketed past the Summer of Lowered Expectations to deliver a solid, two-and-a-half star behemoth, chock-full-o-laughs and a surprisingly ambitious story. The only thing weighing it down from reaching the coveted three-star rating was its hefty 113 minute running time, providing even more proof that Hollywood has forgotten its own words to live by, “less is more.” So what gives? Why have movies gotten so long in the tooth?
How many times has this happened to you: you’re sitting in a darkened theater, squeezing whatever enjoyment you can out of the latest, over-hyped, must-see movie of the summer, and at a certain point your brain says, “ok, I’ve had enough – please be over now,” but it just keeps going and going. You look at your watch and when those credits finally roll you feel a sense of euphoria that far outweighs anything the movie itself stirred in you.
Nearly every movie the Summer Movie Club members have seen this year would have been better “if it were just X minutes shorter.” For a while it seemed to be a phenomenon only affecting action movies (is there anyone out there who wouldn’t have better enjoyed Transformers were it not a little shorter?) but now even comedies have been inching their way skyward and wearing out their welcome. Need proof? Let’s take a look at the history of running times from Adam Sandler movies:
1995 – Billy Madison (89 mins)
1996 – Happy Gilmor (92 mins)
1999 – Big Daddy (93 mins)
2002 – Mr Deeds (96 mins)
2004 – 50 First Dates (99 mins)
2006 – Click (107 mins)
2007 – Chuck & Larry (110 mins)
2008 – Zohan (113 mins)
Ay caramba! Who’s sponsoring these things, the makers of ass-cushions? Let’s all take a moment to savor the irony that Sandler’s longest movie is the one all about cutting and trimming…
People may go to comedies to laugh, but audiences still need a good story and characters they care about to feel fulfilled; just because a movie is funny doesn’t make it exempt from the basic rule of film making: every scene must contribute to the story and advance the plot. It doesn’t matter how funny you are, if enough time goes by where the jokes (or explosions) aren’t moving the story forward people will get bored.
In Zohan, about halfway through the movie we start getting scenes that are just comedy sketches – bits and pieces that don’t do anything for the story but obviously Sandler felt were just so funny they had to be included; if you pad a movie with enough of these, the lapses in plot advancement begin to make you lose interest and that’s when the boredom sets in.
Sorry, Adam, but if you’re going to try and elevate your comedy by giving it a worthwhile story about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, you have to stay focused – you can’t dilute it with a bunch of pointless slapstick and expect it to work dramatically. Precious as your comedy gems may be, they should have been left on the cutting room floor.
In addition to clarity of story, trimming down a comedy film allows you to obey another important rule: brevity is the essence of wit. Audiences do suffer from “laugh fatigue,” and if you keep hitting them with gags, you’re going to blunt their funny bone! A good jokesmith also knows how to ditch material that doesn’t resonate with the majority of the house and Zohan had its fair share of tepid, polite chuckles.
That’s why so many of our all-time favorite comedies hit much closer to the 90-minute mark: Annie Hall, Animal House, Young Frankenstein, Blazing Saddles, Caddyshack, Airplane, Monty Python and the Holy Grail and The Princess Bride were all made by people who understood these rules. It seems like Hollywood has forsaken the adage “always leave them wanting more” in favor of “always leave them in their seats long enough so they’ll get hungry and buy more popcorn.”
Have today’s film makers gotten so enamoured of their own material that they just can’t bear to cut stuff out? The aforementioned classics were the result directors who would agonize over cutting great material, but would ultimately do so for the same reasons – it didn’t help the story.
If anything, modern directors should be having an easier time trimming out the fat. Why? DVD! You no longer have to fret that people will never see those little nuggets of gold because they’re going to show up under the “deleted scenes” menu. In fact, it’s in Hollywood’s best interest to make the theatrical version as lean as possible – this way they’ll have enough extra, must-see material to make that “Director’s Laff-A-Minute Extended Edition” actually worth seeing.
Judd Apatow, who seems to be on track for Hollywood’s first Titanic-length comedy (did Knocked Up really need to be 129 minutes?) certainly knows better; he cut his teeth as a writer for the Larry Sanders Show, one of the most brilliant half-hour comedies in history. Guess what? He’s currently working on a movie with Adam Sandler! Please, guys, I beg you, before you hit that editing room, have a few drinks and pop on DVDs of Billy Madison and Larry Sanders – maybe they will inspire you to get that movie on the Stair-Master!
My ass will thank you.