Recently, many remarks have been cracked about running times of movies and the title 88 Minutes. "Is it too much to hope for that 88 Minutes will actually be 88 minutes?" our own James Rocchi asked me not too long ago. 88 minutes is a great running time for a movie, especially for busy critics with lots of movies to see and too many deadlines. You're in an out well before the welcome has worn out. Orson Welles' The Magnificent Ambersons is considered a masterpiece at 88 minutes, even cut down from its original 132. Bill Murray knew the power of 88 minutes when he turned in his final cut of the classic Quick Change (1990). The Woodsman (2004) would have been unbearable at anything longer than 88 minutes. And whatever else you have to say about them, Scary Movie, Sexy Beast, Spy Kids, The Big Bounce, Transporter 2, Wristcutters: A Love Story and Horton Hears a Who! never seemed too long.
But, alas, 88 Minutes runs 108 minutes, and it's too long. Al Pacino (with a poofy, rooster-head haircut) plays high-profile forensic psychologist Jack Gramm, whose testimony was almost solely responsible for the conviction of accused murderer Jon Forster (Neal McDonough). Today, Forster is going to the chair, while maintaining his innocence, and while identical murders are still being committed throughout Seattle. At 10:17 a.m., Gramm gets a call, saying he has 88 minutes left to live. That call comes about a half hour into the movie, and the 88 minutes passes by in an awkward, compressed 70 minutes, give or take, followed by the expected conclusion and credits. Couldn't a cleverer filmmaker have set the movie in real time, and then used flashbacks to do all that boring preliminary stuff? Wouldn't the film have been much better if it just started with a bang, with that phone call?
Gramm is also a university professor, and all his students, including teaching assistant Kim Cummings (Alicia Witt), Lauren Douglas (Leelee Sobieski) and Mike Stempt (Benjamin McKenzie) all act kinda creepy around him. The school's dean Carol Johnson (Deborah Kara Unger) acts creepy. Gramm's cop buddy Frank Parks (William Forsythe) acts creepy. Gramm's hard-working assistant Shelly Barnes (Amy Brenneman) acts suspicious. And even the hottie that Gramm woke up with this morning, Sara Pollard (Leah Cairns), acts weird. They all exhibit head-scratching moments of behavior. A suspense movie is supposed to give us red herrings and multiple suspects, but this is the far lazier Joe Eszterhas method: if everyone is a suspect you can film multiple endings and run audience tests to see who they'd prefer as the killer. The trouble with this is that all the other supposedly innocent characters still spend the movie acting weird, and we end up not liking anyone. I don't think this is what director Jon Avnet actually planned, however. Rather, my guess is that, to get bad performances from this many actors, you have to be a bad director.
Avnet mainly works as a film producer and a director of television, with only four other feature films to his credit, all forgettable: Fried Green Tomatoes (1991), The War (1994), Up Close & Personal (1996) and Red Corner (1997). Working from a screenplay by the equally unimpressive Gary Scott Thompson (Hollow Man and its sequels, The Fast and the Furious and its sequels, etc.), Avnet immediately betrays his mistrust in the audience. We start with a flashback to 1997, to an early murder. A character looks at a copy of the Seattle Times with a cover story on the death of Princess Diana. We see several shots of the paper, and then we get some inane dialogue about whether or not Di's death was an accident. Avnet wastes at least 20 clumsy seconds establishing the date and the place, neither of which turns out to be that important. Throughout the film characters constantly add a few extra words to their dialogue, helpfully describing what we can already see.Besides that, 88 Minutes has a noticeable awkwardness, as if it were dashed off and never double-checked. Ideas come up and are dropped. At one point, Gramm hails a taxi and gives the driver $100 to let him drive. For the next 15 or 20 minutes, then, we get some bit actor sitting in the back of the cab, out of focus, while Pacino and Witt drive around and talk about who the killer might be. This character is like the elephant in the room, and nothing more ever happens with him. (I can't even tell you what his name is; there are two "cabbies" listed in the credits.) Most of the action flies by as characters call each other on cell phones and walk/run around while talking on cell phones. I'll admit that it's easy to follow, but the many logic loopholes betray even that one benefit. The villain spends the film trying to frame Gramm for the murders, but the very fact that Gramm is being threatened rather lets him off the hook. Not to mention that the killer's plan doesn't actually prevent Gramm from calling the police. I maintain that all this trouble could have been at least partly eased with an 88-minute running time. It would have given us less time to ponder ridiculous plot details, and it would have lightened the movie's dreadfully ponderous tone. But like a bad apple, that extra 20 minutes of wasted film has rotted the rest.