Confronted by the alleged thriller "Paranoia" last week, I was struck dumb (and dumber!) by the opening voice-over narration delivered in heavy, stilted tones by Liam Hemsworth, a young actor whose only piece of direction, apparently, was: Talk. Slowly. As if the audience. Was. A bunch. Of dopes.
Now, the writing doesn't do Hemsworth any favors. It's larded with generalities ("Be careful what you wish for…" etc.) But 60 seconds into the picture, you're already out of it and wondering. Why does so much narrative voice-over in so many films, whether delivered by a protagonist or an anonymous third party, sound like speeching instead of talking? Or in the best cases, like someone thinking out loud?
There are glorious exceptions. In the opening of director Carol Reed's "The Third Man," Reed himself provided the voice of the unseen, unnamed racketeer introducing the audience to screenwriter Graham Greene's swift, astonishingly good evocation of post-World War II Vienna. "Vienna doesn't really look any worse than a lot of other European cities," he says, airily. "Bombed about a bit." Then, the voice interrupts itself: "Oh, I was going to tell you, wait, I was going to tell you about Holly Martins, an American. Came all the way here to visit a friend of his. The name was Lime, Harry Lime. Now, Martins was broke and Lime had offered him, some sort, I don't know, some sort of job…"
Interesting history on that introduction: The film's American money man, David O. Selznick, thought U.S. audiences would object to such an opening gambit. So in its initial American theatrical release "The Third Man" began not with Reed's voiceover, but with the film's star, Joseph Cotten, doing the honors. Less exotic that way, less a voice of the underworld. And infinitely less distinctive.
"No Country For Old Men" offers one of the few instances of opening narration comparable to the conversational genius of "The Third Man's." As the Coen brothers' stark Texas landscapes come and go on screen, Tommy Lee Jones ushers us into the story, speaking as a sheriff ground down by the evil we're about to witness.
Straight from Cormac McCarthy, more or less, he says: "The crime you see now, it's hard to even take its measure. It's not that I'm afraid of it. I always knew you had to be willing to die to even do this job. But, I don't want to push my chips forward and go out and meet something I don't understand. A man would have to put his soul at hazard. He'd have to say, 'O.K., I'll be part of this world.'" This last part, Jones reads almost inaudibly, in a spooked, hushed tone. Even those who don't consider "No Country" a masterwork have to concede the concision and rightness of this overture.
As the delightful new comedy about voiceover artists, "In a World…" asserts, the right voice is more than a collection of vowel sounds and Alan Rickman-style consonants, cracking the air like little whips. It's a matter of tone, and making the audience listen to the sort of thing they know well, or that they've heard a hundred times before. Kim Stanley as the voice of the adult Scout in "To Kill a Mockingbird" — who better? None better.
Or for something in the omniscient, slightly ironic vein, revisit "Little Children" sometime. This fiercely well-acted domestic tangle (the film "American Beauty" only wishes it was) is narrated by Will Lyman, the voice of the PBS documentary series "Frontline." It's an inspired choice: That sound, that voice, lends a dispassionate calm to disquieting narrative events. He makes measured, godlike authority sound like ordinary human speech.
When stuck with routine voiceover narration chores in the confines of a narrative feature, an actor could do worse than remind himself or herself of the Carol Reed principle per "The Third Man." We're hearing this for the first time. It helps us if you say it like you're discovering it yourself, for the first time. Or maybe the first cognizant time. This is so much tougher than it sounds. Tobey Maguire's a fine actor, but he reads the Nick bits in the recent "Great Gatsby" as if he were auditioning for a voiceover job.
If screenwriters are going to continue to over-rely on this trope, actors must find a way to pull us in, seduce us, before we realize where we are and what's about to happen on screen.