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TOO MANY MOVIES TODAY OUTSTAY THEIR WELCOME

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David Letterman occasionally jokes with his movie star guests that he has a theory about Hollywood: There are too many movies. And therefore, there are too many bad movies.

So, Dave continues, he has an idea to remedy the situation. Just make one or two movies each year - but make them so good, that they'll be worth it.Yeah, Dave. Like "Cabin Boy"?

Still, he does have a point. There are too many movies. And there are far too many bad movies.

So, what can Hollywood do to make them better?

Well, like Dave, I have an idea. And like Dave's idea, mine will also be ignored by Hollywood.

Of course, it's understandable that Dave's idea is ignored. It's not terribly practical, after all, to make only a couple of movies each year - though, goodness knows, Hollywood movers and shakers certainly earn enough from one or two movies each year to support a small country.

So, here's my idea: Instead of just making a couple of movies each year, how about simply making the movies shorter? (Come to think of it, that might have the same effect in the long run.)

No, really. It's true. Most movies today are simply too long! And it's obvious that many of them could be better if someone simply got out the scissors. A little judicious editing might make all the difference between a movie that moves and one that feels flabby.

Why are so many movies more than 2 hours long these days? Does "When a Man Loves a Woman" need to be 2 hours and 4 minutes? Does "Maverick" have to clock in at 2 hours and 9 minutes? Is it necessary for "Renaissance Man" to run 2 hours and 9 minutes?

And look at "City Slickers II: The Legend of Curly's Gold" or "Crooklyn" - do they need to keep going and going for just under two full hours?

Now, please understand that I have nothing against leisurely paced films, but when a movie takes two full hours to tell its story, someone should probably take another look, just to see if the film is really worthy of that length. In the case of light comedies, especially, there are probably some things that could be cut. (See "Mrs. Doubtfire," which could easily lose 20 to 30 minutes.)

Of course, movies don't have to reach 2 hours in length to be too long. At 99 minutes and 92 minutes, respectively, "3 Ninjas Kick Back" and "The Flintstones" seem to overstay their welcome. The same can be said for "The Princess and the Goblin" at a mere 89 minutes.

There was a time when the average length for a feature was anywhere from 65 to 90 minutes, and as recently as 11 years ago, Woody Allen's "Zelig"' had a 79-minute running time. After all, it's the subject matter and how well it plays that should determine a film's length. If audience members get restless, you've lost them.

On the other hand, a really long movie - like "Schindler's List" (more than 3 hours) or "Dances With Wolves" (3 hours) or, going back, "Lawrence of Arabia" (3 1/2 hours) or "Gone With the Wind" (nearly 4 hours) - can sustain its length if the story and characters are compelling enough.

But the truth is, filmmakers today simply have too much control. Now, I'm not suggesting we should return to the old studio era, when filmmakers had no control. But these days, once directors, producers or stars have a couple of hit movies, they tend to indulge themselves.

For example, Billy Crystal, who is the producer and co-writer, as well as the star of "City Slickers II," had final cut, which means his contract included a clause that allowed him to determine the film's length and what scenes would stay or go. And after spending 9 months shooting the film and overseeing its post-production, he was undoubtedly too close to the project to see clearly that certain things needed to be cut.

The length of "City Slickers II" was ultimately Crystal's decision. But someone with a little distance should have insisted the film be shortened. It might have made all the difference between a picture with long, dry stretches and a fast-paced comedy that keeps the audience laughing from beginning to end.

It's a situation that applies to too many films these days, and one that is not likely to change very soon.

In a couple of weeks, Kevin Costner's "Wyatt Earp" will come riding into town - at a running time of more than 3 hours. Does yet another "O.K. Corral" yarn deserve that length? We'll see on June 24.

But one thing's for sure - we don't need 2 1/2-hour "Ernest" movies or a 3-hour sequel to "Ace Ventura, Pet Detective."

- QUOTE OF THE WEEK: Keanu Reeves, star of "Speed" and "Little Buddha," on his name, which is Hawaiian for "cool breeze over the mountain":

"It's full of vowels. Perhaps it means `traveling different ways.' My name is not born out in popular stories."

- QUOTE OF THE WEEK: Billy Crystal, on why he made a sequel to "City Slickers":

"There was no serious corporate pressure. I don't get pushed around. But they did say that if I wanted to do a sequel, this was the time to do it. If we waited much longer, it would be too late. So we thought about this a long time. So many other sequels have ruined it for the good ones just by being lousy or being thrown out there so fast. They didn't care; they were just trying to cash in. But when we came up with the notion of what it was to become, we said, `Let's do it.' I thought it would be fun, and that was the only reason to do it."