The Big Picture

Patrick Goldstein and James Rainey
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Memo to Judd Apatow: Your movie is too long!

May 8, 2009 |  2:05 pm

Dear Judd:

As you know, I'm a big admirer of your work, in all its many permutations, going back--way back--to your TV work ("Freaks and Geeks" still hasn't lost a step) and early film efforts (it being NBA playoff time,  my kid and I being true-blue Celtic fans have been wearing out "Celtic Pride"). But I just read the worrisome interview on MTV News in which you say that your upcoming Adam Sandler movie "Funny People" is--gasp!--150 minutes long. I thought MTV might have misquoted you somehow, so I called an exec at Universal Pictures, the studio releasing the film, who confirmed that the film--as it stands now--is indeed 150 minutes, though he assured me that you're still tinkering with the cut, so if I was eager to influence your decision making, now would be the time to offer any free advice. (Actually, what he really said was: "PLEASE, GOD, GET HIM TO CUT THE MOVIE!" but I think that part might have been off-the-record.) 

Since you're a final cut director and have made lots of moola for the studio, no one on the inside is going to put any undue pressure on you--studio execs hate to ruin a good relationship by having a fight with a filmmaker that they can't win. But as an outsider, I can be honest with you: 2-1/2-hour comedies don't work. The form isn't meant to carry that much weight. I'm sure you have your reasons: Having seen your trailer (which is a little long itself), I realize you have a complicated story to tell, a story that's not just for laughs, since it's about a comedian who thinks he's dying but then realizes that he's not and has to figure out how that double-whammy changes his priorities about his life.

Funnypeople I've also gathered from your interviews that you see "Funny People" (and forgive me for oversimplifying a little here) as your Jim Brooks movie, a film that mixes comedy and drama. And yes, if Jim Brooks is your model, you're going to run a little long, since if you averaged out the running time of his best films ("As Good as It Gets," "Broadcast News" and "Terms of Endearment") they'd come out at around 135 minutes. But I would caution you that Jim Brooks is one of a kind, a once in a generation dramatist and comic wizard. And if you're set on emulating on him, the bar is awfully high, especially since he was working with Jack Nicholson and William Hurt and Holly Hunter and Debra Winger and Shirley MacLaine and Albert Brooks, and you, my friend, are working with Adam Sandler and Seth Rogen.

If you're doing a comedy, especially one set in the world of stand-up comics, less is more. Always. Comedy is a form that rewards quick set-ups, sharp, fast editing and a rapid pace. They may share the first letter, but in comedy, languid, listless and lethargic scenes do not get the laughs. Victory goes to the hare, not to the turtle. The record on this is quite clear. I could take you all the way back to Buster Keaton and Harold Lloyd, not to mention Preston Sturges, Gregory La Cava, Frank Tashlin, John Landis and Ivan Reitman, but just check out your own contemporaries.

Adam Sandler's best movies--"Happy Gilmore," "The Waterboy," "Big Daddy" and "50 First Dates"--were all under 100 minutes. Ditto for the best Coen brothers comedies, notably "Fargo" as well as Jay Roach's best "Austin Powers" films. Shawn Levy's "Pink Panther" and "Cheaper by the Dozen" were both under 100 minutes; David Wain's "Role Models" clocked in at 101 minutes; John Hamburg's "I Love You, Man" was 105 minutes; Roach's "Meet the Parents" and Levy's "Night at the Museum" were both 108 minutes. You got away with one on "Knocked Up," which ran 129 minutes and really felt poky in the second half of the movie.

I hope you won't push your luck with "Funny People." Keep showing your cut to an audience (i.e. real people, not your pals) and listen to the room. I know you're really good at this stuff and it's probably laughable for a journalist to be lecturing you about comedy, but sometimes it helps to have an outside opinion. I know this movie must be especially personal for you, but even personal films should adhere to the eternal laws of the comic universe. Just ask Cameron Crowe, who couldn't force himself to bring "Elizabethtown" in under two hours and paid the price. The movie had wonderful moments in it, but it lingered--and lingered--and lost its rhythm. I get the feeling your movie has a lot of soul too, but remember: The soul of comedy is brevity.

Your loyal fan.

Patrick Goldstein

Photo: A scene from Judd Apatow's upcoming comedy "Funny People." Photo credit: Universal Pictures.