20 Minutes Too Long

Working at a movie theater in high school, I learned a few rules of thumb about movie lengths: kids movies are 90 minutes long. Most comedies are 90 minutes or a little longer. Most other movies are two hours, summer blockbusters and war epics tend to be 2½. A new rule would be that Judd Apatow comedies are all 20 minutes too long.1Entertainment Weekly published a short piece a few weeks ago arguing just this. Here are the running times of select movies:

  • The 40 Year Old Virgin: 114 minutes
  • Knocked Up: 129 minutes
  • Superbad: 118 minutes (produced)

It’s a funny thing to criticize. I can certainly see how you want those extra scenes to develop characters and play out comedy beats. One of the things I like most about going to the movies is getting lost in the picture. The lights go down and the story whisks you away. A challenge for filmmakers is to make me forget I’m sitting in an auditorium for as long as possible. Eventually, during almost every movie, there will be a moment where the story’s hold on me lapses and I wonder what time it is, or what I have to do later that week, or something. During these moments, you don’t want your audience thinking, “wow, I’ve been sitting here for a long time.” That happened to me during both The 40 Year Old Virgin and Knocked Up. I liked them both, but wouldn’t have missed them if a scene here or there were cut/shortened.

Forgetting Sarah Marshall, out today, runs 112 minutes. Will it be too long, too?

  1. In college I also learned that all Russian movies are one hour too long. They made some great movies over there, but clearly there was no shortage of film stock.