Welcome to Friday Five, a column dedicated to all things pop culture. Every week, we’ll put together five recommendations for you from the worlds of film, television, books and music, each curated to a different theme.
First-person narration has long been a staple of written fiction, so it’s no surprise that it’s spilled over into the worlds of cinema and TV. However, unlike a book, a film is a visual medium, so the verbal narrative requires a balance with what’s seen onscreen, a more difficult trick than you might think. When done poorly, the voiceover feels superfluous, even distracting. But when done well, it becomes an essential part of the characterization and plot, unable to be extricated from the rest of the movie.
With Enola Holmes set to hit Netflix next week, adding another fourth wall-breaking narrator to film canon, now seems like a good time to look back on some other movies where the main character spent just as much time talking to the audience as they did to the rest of the cast.
5. Sunset Boulevard (1950)
Joe Gillis (William Holden), a down-on-his-luck screenwriter, ends up inadvertently working for Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson), a past-her-prime silent film star. Believing the clean-up project he’s performing on her screenplay will be easy money, Joe instead ends up in a co-dependent and toxic relationship with Norma that heads toward an inevitable tragic conclusion.
It takes some guts to start your movie with the murdered body of your main character and even more to let the murdered man narrate your film for you, but Sunset Boulevard’s opening and narration have become iconic moments in the noir genre. Unlike many film noirs which focus on crime and corruption, Sunset is more concentrated on the damage fame and the pursuit thereof does on a person’s psyche. Joe’s sardonic and occasionally cruel narration gives us a front-row seat into his thoughts and motivations, while Gloria Swanson plays Norma as a combination of delusional arrogance and a fearful terror that she has become irrelevant. From its hard-boiled dialogue to its memorable characters, Sunset Boulevard is a film still well worth the watch.
4. Ferris Bueller’s Day Off (1986)
High school senior Ferris Bueller (Matthew Broderick) decides that it’s time to take a day off from the drudgery of public education. Using his wits, his inventiveness and the help of his best friend and girlfriend, he schemes to have the greatest day in Chicago a teenager could ever have, all while dodging the pursuit of his school’s dean.
While Ferris Bueller opens in prototypical fashion, with its protagonist lying sick in bed and doted over by his caring parents, the moment Matthew Broderick turns to directly address the camera – and the audience behind it – we know we’re in for a very different sort of teenage comedy. Though the film was hardly the first to break the fourth wall (both Jack Benny and Tom Jones got there first), it’s the movie’s easy flip between traditional comedy and audience address that gives it its unique flair. Buoyed along by a great supporting cast, including Alan Ruck, Jeffery Jones and a pre-Dirty Dancing Jennifer Grey, Ferris Bueller has remained a classic of adolescent fantasy for a reason.
3. Fight Club (1999)
A man (Edward Norton) working as an unhappy corporate cog has a chance run-in with Tyler Durden (Brad Pitt), an anarchic soap dealer who proposes putting together an underground fight club in order to reconnect to something lost by the modern American male. But as the club grows more blatant and violent, the narrator discovers not everything is as it seems.
Beyond its most famous line – about which we won’t talk – what makes Fight Club stand out so much as a narrated film is the fact that its narrator is completely unreliable. What we see and what is actually happening don’t necessarily align, which director David Fincher uses to great effect as the film progresses. As events seem to spin more and more out of control, Norton’s uneasiness rises to greater prominence, with the audience experiencing the same level of disquiet while stuck within his narrow viewpoint. Additionally, the use of unreliable narration helps to undergird Fincher’s gleeful deconstruction of late 20th century masculinity; after all, if we can’t rely on the protagonist’s own memories to be true, what are we supposed to make of his analysis of the male experience?
2. Deadpool (2016)
Wade Wilson (Ryan Reynolds) has exactly what any mercenary with flexible morals could want out of life: a girlfriend, Vanessa (Morena Baccarin), who shares his dark sense of humor, an apartment that isn’t entirely terrible and a decent living as a vigilante-for-hire. But a cancer diagnosis and an experimental treatment send him spiraling down into some of the more twisted and stranger sections of the X-men universe.
Deadpool wears its inspirations directly on its red spandex sleeves. Where Ferris Buller is what happens when teenage comedies start talking about themselves, Deadpool is what happens when superhero films start doing the same. Taking a comics character already known for breaking the fourth wall, Deadpool the film simply follows that idea to its natural conclusion, with Wade not only talking directly to the audience but to his own flashbacks as well. The film, with its hyperactive violence and more than occasionally juvenile sense of humor, is definitely not for everyone. But if you’re in the mood for a truly funny deconstruction of superheroes in general and Marvel Comics in particular, you could do a lot worse.
1. Birds of Prey (and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn) (2020)
Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie) declares her official breakup with the Joker in the most public way possible: by blowing up his favorite spot in Gotham City. This subsequently sets off a chain of events, ending with Harley on the run from nearly everyone in Gotham’s underworld, including gangs, ex-henchmen and the world’s most unpleasant nightclub owner.
You may have noticed a pattern with a lot of these films: most of the narrators are men. Birds of Prey proves the exception to the rule, with Margot Robbie’s Harley Quinn grabbing the baton from Deadpool and taking off in her own chaotic direction with it. A colorful, hyperkinetic film that feels more of piece with neon-drenched eighties movies like The Warriors than modern superhero productions, Birds of Prey nevertheless is a movie made with women in mind. Not only does it give Harley centerstage to display her own specific worldview to the audience, it allows the other characters the chance to breath as well, whether it’s burnt out detective Renee Montoya (Rosie Perez) or pickpocket Cassandra Cain (Ella Jay Basco). Hitting just before the pandemic shutdown, Birds of Prey was overshadowed a bit by current events, but if you missed its theatrical run, it’s absolutely worth a watch on DVD or VOD.
And that’s the list for the week. What other famous film narrators do you think deserve more discussion? Comment below and let us know your thoughts!