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Too Long By a Mile 

*The Green Mile (R)
Warner Brothers

Sometimes the green mile seems so long," opines the elderly Paul Edgecomb (Dabbs Greer), protagonist of the new Frank Darabont film adaptation of a Stephen King prison story.

No kidding.

At three hours and ten minutes long, this is one marathon of a movie, and unnecessarily so. The charming story is fairly straightforward and tightly plotted, and a relatively small ensemble of characters fill most of the scenes. One can only conclude that following Darabont's sweeping success with The Shawshank Redemption in 1992, the filmmaker felt he had to follow up with something bigger and better. Big mistake. Bigger and longer does not necessarily mean better, just more self important and bloated with empty seconds in this case.

Darabont's film might deserve all the pre-release hype it has received ("magnificent," "extraordinary," "Oscar-worthy") if it were an hour shorter and minus its insufferable pregnant pauses and overbearing musical soundtrack.

The story, based on King's 1996 serial novel, is oddly compelling: A death row prison guard in the mid-1930's deep South, Edgecomb (played by Tom Hanks except in the wraparound opening and closing scenes) is delivered a 7-foot tall, black, simple-minded inmate, convicted for the murder of two small girls. The inmate, John Coffey (Michael Clarke Duncan), soon demonstrates his ability to draw "bad stuff" out of other humans with his superhuman empathy and magical powers. As Coffey's time on death row passes, Edgecomb and his fellow deputies and Coffey's fellow inmates are all affected by the gentle giant's presence.

Duncan's characterization, though spare, is powerful. Over the course of the film, we understand his burden of being a truly angelic man in a corrupt world, infected with evil. "He kill 'em with dey love," he tells Edgecomb, revealing his knowledge of a particularly gruesome murder. "That's the way it is all over the world." And Hanks, as Edgecomb, is his usual measured, affable self -- the soul of fairness. The villains are suitably evil, especially Doug Hutchison as deputy guard Percy Wetmore who characterizes death row like this: "I think of it as a bucket of piss to drown rats in."

The Green Mile (the title refers to the linoleum-covered hallway leading to the electric chair) is a worthy exploration of good and evil, human suffering, the cold inevitability of death and the redeeming power of love. But because the strength lies in the originality of the story, the earthy vernacular and the colorful characters, the director's tired dramatic approach feels like little more than excessive padding. Do we really need, in every scene, to see close-up the facial expression of every single character, every time a line is delivered? And lord forbid, do we need to be reminded incessantly how to feel by the ponderous musical soundtrack (scored by Thomas Newman who also penned the insufferable Horse Whisperer score)?

To Darabont's credit, The Green Mile is a gorgeous movie to behold. The rural scenes, shot in Blowing Rock, NC, and in middle Tennessee, are wet, gray and eerie, and the interior death row set is strangely beautiful. In a scene that almost redeems the rest of the movie, John Coffey, slick and black as ebony, big as a bear, sits in a darkened prison theater in a rickety wooden chair, haloed by the projection of Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire in Top Hat onto a makeshift screen. It's pure rapture.

Not as affecting or as graphically brutal as The Shawshank Redemption by a mile (except for one gruesome execution scene), the formula here doesn't include two actors as intense and perfectly matched as Tim Robbins and Morgan Freeman, or two characters as interesting as theirs in that film. The Green Mile is more like a Disney film set on death row -- it makes us feel saddened and warmed at once. I would have left the theater whistling if not for the backache I got from sitting in a chair for three and a quarter hours.

Darabont and company should have taken a hint from the essence of the film's characters -- simple and to-the-point is often best.

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