It’s the tag to many a movie recommendation – “and it’s only 90 minutes long!” The hosts of the podcast The Next Picture Show regularly point out short run times during their regular recommendation segments though this pot sweetener gets added to most any suggested title that qualifies. It’s a strange feature to point out in a movie you ostensibly adore enough to want others to experience, like rhapsodizing about your favorite restaurant and their small portions.
A movie must justify its existence for every minute it runs over an hour and a half. “Would have been a better cut down to 90 minutes,” or “It doesn’t justify being over two hours long” might be true statements but they’re often prescriptions without considering the symptoms. Are there superfluous scenes? Is the pacing wrong? Does it just suck and you wish it were over sooner? Amputation at the 90-minute mark is the diagnosis, though by the Academy’s standards a movie can go as low as 40 minutes and meet the definition of a feature. Strange how few ideas require only 41-89 minutes of time.
The real reason for pointing out a svelte runtime is that thanks to multiple streaming services and the rise of serialized television (movies, according to some wrongheaded definitions, that run for 10-30 hours but complete a structure an average of every 45 minutes) our queues and watchlists have grown untenable. A 90-minute recommendation can be wedged in before moving on to the next thing, whereas an ungainly triple-digit 105 means it’s an Event and we have to plan it and who has that kind of unbroken time. We’d make more progress on our list watching two episodes of Succession.
Blockbusters buck this affinity for efficiency because they wish to announce themselves as Events. This year’s Avengers: Endgame capped an unprecedented run of shared-universe movies and announced its status as a must-attend milestone with a 182 minute runtime, outlasting the previous Marvel Cinematic Universe champion (Infinity War) by 22 minutes. Going back to the restaurant analogy, Endgame is the steakhouse whose pride and joy is a reasonably priced chicken-fried steak that spills over the edge of the plate. And while one shouldn’t eat three pounds of fried meat every night, it can make a fine and satisfying meal when done right.
And Endgame is fried meat done right, with three hours of setpieces and space for individual moments with characters established over the last ten years of films. There’s nothing more contemplative than a brief stretch of doubt by Tony Stark before we jump into the second of somewhere around ten acts. It’s exhausting and, for acolytes of the MCU, rewarding. As no doubt some Disney bean counter pointed out, making the film even half an hour shorter would have allowed theaters to wedge in an extra showtime per screen per day* but three hours sent a signal to a loyal audience: With this platter you get all the fixins.
Several films have benefitted from a larger size without the calories. The year’s fifth-longest English-language non-Malick movie Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood (2 hours 40 min) refuses to cut all the commute between period locations, immersing the viewer in 1969 Los Angeles, paying extra attention to fashion, building facades, radio ads and the process of getting from one side of the sprawl to the other. A shorter movie would use these items as signposts and needledrops. Hollywood needs the audience to find the notion of kicking back in the era as appealing as Quentin Tarantino obviously does. With its conclusion of sudden violence, the end of the previous 2+ hours mimics the end of that era and the shock of losing that world.
Her Smell (2 hours 15 min) blows past the polite length for a movie with so little story to add to its synopsis: a self-destructive punk rocker’s addictions and narcissism spin out of control. Yet with its structure of five extended single-location acts the movie envelops the viewer in the chaos. We sympathize with the people captured the orbit of Becky Something because we’ve experienced something like it, having been submerged in the push and pull between characters enhanced by a mesmerizing sound design and roving camera. When we’re given a calm scene after the 90-minute mark, the relief is real. The experiences of Hollywood and Her Smell are only possible in feature film form, unsegmented by credits, only able to be interrupted in progress by deliberate action against the movie.
The accomplishment of the year in length is, of course, The Irishman (3 hours 30 min) beating every other film this year by half an hour.** It’s also the longest film of Martin Scorsese’s career by the same measure, a career with no shortage of films already doubling the acceptable length of a motion picture. Given the latitude, Scorsese and his longtime editor Thelma Schoonmaker play time like an instrument.
The life and times of Frank Sheeran (Robert De Niro) fill the first two and a half hours. Goodfellas, the film most often compared to The Irishman, runs that length in its entirety. It’s a rush of illegal activities, contract killings, family gatherings. It never feels crowded or long. It’s a full life, activity-wise. Then Frank is sent on an errand of betrayal and the screen time stretches. This sequence gets about a half hour, a big change from the other killings which are generally over and done within seconds. Frank and the movie observes the preparation for the deed, the location, the irrelevant conversations that lead up to the confrontation. The story is assembled from a much larger set of data, a more vivid and prolonged memory.
The final stretch contains Frank’s old age and Scorsese/Schoomaker’s coup de grâce. The story skips forward without the flow of the earlier scenes. Years disappear without comment and Frank has missed them, too. People in Frank’s life have died off screen. “Who killed him?” Frank asks when told about one of them. Cancer, is the reply. His young nurse doesn’t even know who Jimmy Hoffa is. These matters of utmost importance that built a feature-worthy life have disappeared. But it happened only minutes ago, literally. Frank doesn’t complain, doesn’t outwardly fret the shortening of the scenes. He doesn’t have to. We absorb Frank’s disorientation and fear as we hurtle toward the end. Without a sufficient runway the film would lose the power in the contrast between Frank’s oft-rehashed glory days and his ignoble and lonely end.
Roger Ebert said “No good film is too long and no bad movie is short enough.” It’s only a matter of time before streaming platforms figure out what an arbitrary duration 90 minutes is when subscribers aren’t paying per title. Netflix already has with one-off specials like The Unauthorized Bash Brothers Experience (30 min). Freedom from prerequisite lengths will help the short film, but here’s hoping the virtues of the long game don’t get swallowed up by serials or quick fixes.
* Disney’s other big “final chapter” event, Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker will clock in a half-hour shorter than Endgame but run longer than any previous Star Wars film.
** Aside from the Banglideshi film The Innocence which, at 21 hours, is the longest non-experimental film ever made. I’ll, uh, have to get back to you on its virtues.