One of the top things a film can do to piss me off is to have the actors break the fourth wall. Intended to be cute, and a throwback to stage productions of olde, it usually just manages to yank my imagination out of the story – precisely the opposite effect it’s going for, which is to make me feel more intimate with the character doing the breaking. As they discuss over at Cinematical today, this aspect of craft isn’t going away, and some directors use it to excess.
The practical applications are few and far between, but a couple of exceptions to this crime come to mind. High Fidelity made it work because the character is an insufferable egomaniac; it just makes sense that this entire story will be told to us directly from his point-of-view, spouted from his lips to our ears. In this case it’s a generous serving of breakage, pretty much throughout the entire flick, and consistency wins. Alternately, if it’s only used once or sparingly, it can be an appropriate moment for comedy. For instance, at :51 in this clip from Trading Places, Eddie Murphy nails it.
On the other hand, in a penultimate scene from St. Elmo’s Fire, Rob Lowe screws up the whole scene between him and Demi Moore when, at 1:42, he takes her drama and casts his attention our way. Holding our gaze for a couple of seconds, he informs us that “We’re all going through this.” As if the entire film is suddenly about the social plight that is college graduates and their pathetic lives.*
For the most part, breaking the fourth wall rips me out of the cinematic adventure I was on. One second I’m an omnipresent viewer taking in the setting, characters, plot and conflict, barely aware I’m eating popcorn; the next, Ferris Beuller is telling me about his lung he’s about to cough up, all personal and up in my face. Shut up, Ferris. Just shut up.