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Going Long 

New films never run out of breath

Granted, it's awards season, so we can expect the Oscar-bait titles to unspool at a leisurely pace, regardless of whether the extra length is genuinely required for the story's sake or if it's merely a smoke screen meant to convince Academy members that they're watching An Important Movie. But do the period's popcorn pictures also have to drone on and on? Here are three examples of movies that each clock in at over two hours: One wears its running time well, but the others could have used some trimming before being set loose in the multiplexes.

THE GREAT DEBATERS is being positioned as an Oscar contender, and it already has a Golden Globe nomination for Best Picture (Drama) to aid it in its journey. Yet Denzel Washington's previous film as director, 2002's admirable Antwone Fisher, failed to grab the Academy's attention, and I suspect the same fate will befall this inspiring if overly familiar story that owes its allegiance not so much to history (it alters many facts) as to Dead Poets Society, Hoosiers and countless other "carpe diem" flicks.

Washington stars as Melvin B. Tolson, the coach of the debate team at an all-black college in 1930s Texas. With four members under his tutelage -- played by talented thespians Jurnee Smollett, Denzel Whitaker (no relation to co-star Forest Whitaker, who plays his stern father), Nate Parker and Jermaine Williams -- Tolson is determined that his squad will emerge as one of the best, if not the best, in the nation; to accomplish that goal, however, he and his charges will have to contend not only with the racism of the time but also with tensions within their own ranks.

PC to a fault -- I love how in the debates, Tolson's team conveniently always gets to argue the humane side of any given topic (poverty, equal rights, etc.) -- The Great Debaters is nevertheless sincere in its belief in the power of education and in the importance of language. Co-produced by Oprah Winfrey and running just right at 124 minutes, it's naked in its shameless desire to make audiences wince at every setback and cheer at every victory. The strength of the movie is that it gets away with it almost every time.

GIVEN THE EMPHASIS on history in the National Treasure franchise, this follow-up to the 2004 original reminded me of a line from the Herman's Hermits tune about that jolly historical figure Henry the Eighth: "Second verse, same as the first."

In other words, National Treasure: Book of Secrets is essentially the same movie as its blockbuster predecessor, meaning it's a draggy combination of The Da Vinci Code and matinee-style thrills. Only Nicolas Cage's Benjamin Franklin Gates is no Indiana Jones, and (like the first flick) this isn't Raiders of the Lost Ark. Moving ahead at breakneck speed and with no time for rhyme or reason, it's a disjointed yarn in which Gates, in an effort to prove that his great-great-grandfather wasn't one of the conspirators behind Abe Lincoln's assassination, must locate a legendary lost city of gold by uncovering clues hidden on historical artifacts in Paris, London and at the White House.

Practically the entire principal cast returns from the original film -- Jon Voight as Gates' dad, Diane Kruger as his girlfriend, Justin Bartha as his sidekick, and Harvey Keitel as the sympathetic FBI agent hovering around the margins (a role that exists for no discernible reason) -- and they're joined by a slumming Ed Harris as a one-minute-he's-a-bad-guy-now-he's-good-no-wait-he's-bad-again treasure seeker and a slumming Helen Mirren as Gates' feisty mother. It should be noted that this marks Mirren's first screen appearance since winning an Oscar for The Queen. Granted, that's not nearly as shocking as Shirley MacLaine turning up in Cannonball Run II immediately after her Terms of Endearment Oscar victory, but it's nothing to brag about, either.

IT'S POSSIBLE for P.S. I Love You to have emerged as a winning romantic comedy-drama had its running time been capped at 100 minutes. That way, this adaptation of Cecelia Ahern's novel could have focused on the most interesting aspect of this story: the palpable sense of loss a wife experiences after her husband dies of a brain tumor, and his efforts (planned in advance, of course) to insure that she doesn't forfeit her life to misery and despair.

This is prime tearjerker material, and Hilary Swank and (to a lesser degree) Gerard Butler demonstrate that they're capable of pulling this off. Instead, P.S. I Love You runs 126 minutes, and that extra half-hour bloats the material into an ugly mishmash in which the attempts at comedy are excruciating and the drama gets diluted by needless set-pieces presumably meant to snag Swank a third Oscar (she not only sings along to Judy Garland's "The Man That Got Away" in her living room but also merits two karaoke scenes).

The central thrust, contrived but sweet, is that Butler's Gerry knows that Swank's Holly will have a hard time coping with his passing, so he arranges for her to receive a series of letters after his death to ease her into Life Without Gerry. Yet it's hard to focus on this storyline when, for instance, Lisa Kudrow (as Holly's cock-hungry friend) regularly shows up to lust after stray men, or when Holly and her best buds (Kudrow and Gina Gershon) get stranded in a fishing boat in the movie's worst scene. And don't get me started on Harry Connick Jr.'s maddeningly monotonous performance as Daniel, a potential love interest for Holly who is either A) mentally challenged; B) autistic; C) suffering from a PG-13 version of Tourette's syndrome; D) auditioning for a "This is your brain on drugs" TV spot; or E) a serial killer.

So does the possibly psychotic Forrest Gump get the girl as well as the munchies? Only suckers who shell out for this pap will ever know.

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