God help you if you use voice-over in your work, my friends. God help
you. That’s flaccid, sloppy writing. Any idiot can write a voice-over
narration to explain the thoughts of a character.”

- Brian Cox as real guy Robert McKee in Adaptation

statement is just as often wrong as it is right, and we aim to document
both sides of that coin. Sure, when voice-over is used poorly it
becomes a distraction or redundant, but when it’s used well it’s a
complete joy, bringing you right inside a movie.

the course of this week we’re going to examine five of the best and
five of the worst movie voice-overs. There may be a couple of obvious
ones that we leave out so we can squeeze in a couple of
under-appreciated gems or a few under-hated turds, but for the next
five days you’ll be getting a guided tour of the highlights and
lowlights of people speaking over the action in a movie.

The Best

High Fidelity (2000)
Director: Stephen Frears
Writer: Nick Hornby (book), Steve Pink, Scott Rosenberg, John Cusack, D.V. DeVincentis
Voice-over type: Soul-Searching Slacker as only Cusack can do it

If such a thing as a narration gene exists, John Cusack has it running all throughout his hard coding. Few actors if any have spoken to their audience like Cusack has, and his casual and genuine manner of communicating creates a perfect foundation for material so personal and genuine as High Fidelity. It’s tricky to have a film like this that speaks to a generation of dissatisfied, restless males without seeming arch or precious and the move across the sea for the lead character [Hornby’s book is about a Brit] could have easily homogenized the materiel to the point of being typical American romcom fare. In Stephen Frears’deft hands and with Cusack delivering the best narration work of his career it’s magical. Even with Jack Black’s over-the-top scene stealing [at the time, watching it now it’s just like seeing the same thing we’ve seen endlessly for almost a decade] and the presence of a wide array of female foils, there’s still a very comforting and real element to the movie that is 100% effective thanks to the voiceover.

Cusack sells tough material, making a character who is not exactly the sweetest man on the planet come off as someone we root for, and whether he’s having a meltdown in the back of his store or walking through town recounting the women that got away, it’s like being in the company of a best friend. Or, possibly that voice in our own head. John Cusack is US, and no one pulls it off with his grace.

Voice-over highlight: ‘Now, the making of a good compilation tape is a very
subtle art. Many do’s and dont’s. First of all you’re using someone
else’s poetry to express how you feel. This is a delicate thing.

The Worst

Platoon (1986)
Director: Oliver Stone
Writer: Oliver Stone
Voice-over type: The Soldier Poet

Charlie Sheen was in over his head in Oliver Stone’s terrific Oscar magnet, a film that over the years has faded for many due to its “big” moments that have been overplayed or spoofed and the love/hate relationship audiences have with the filmmaker with can sometimes cloud their judgment for his work. Like his father before him, Chuck was thrust into the middle of a war film filled with big talent, big responsibilities, and lots of meaty acting possibilities and though he served as a capable “straight man” to Willem Dafoe and Tom Berenger’s career defining soldier characters, he was ill-equipped to handle the voiceover narration for his once innocent character on this tour through the horrors of Vietnam.

To convey the way the war covered Sheen’s Chris Taylor, the Dale Dye/Oliver Stone audience surrogate with the stink of grim reality, the film is filled with earnest and sometimes extremely turgid dialogue that sounds a lot better in a high school junior’s private journal than spoken aloud by the film’s narrator. Though the loss of innocence is the main theme of the film, Sheen hadn’t yet picked up with charm and flavor that has since prolonged his career and his delivery is wooden and without enough weight to sell the message. Were it not for the work of the amazing cast and the truly effective work onscreen, the narration could easily have scuttled the movie.

It doesn’t, but revisiting the movie now certainly reveals a major opportunity lost and if say… a 1998 incarnation of Charlie Sheen had gone and rerecorded the track we might have the grounds for a renaissance for a nearly bulletproof bit of celluloid.

Voice-over lowlight: ‘Maybe I finally found it, way down here in the mud. Maybe from down
here I can start up again, be something I can be proud of, without
having to fake it, be a fake human being.’