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

Trainspotting (1996)
Director: Danny Boyle
Writer: John Hodge, based on and incorporating large parts of the novel by Irvine Welsh
Voice-over type: The seductive but self-aware confidante

Paraphrasing Sick Boy, Trainspotting‘s narration by inveterate junkie, thief and shitheel Mark Renton has great fucking personality. How many narratives of debasement, scamming and sociopathic cynicism are this persuasive?  Renton may be garbage, but Ewan McGregor has an incredible way with the spoken word. Forget for a moment what his lines mean. Their cadence, in concert with the soundtrack, have the propulsive power of great rock and roll.  

In his second feature, Danny Boyle’s filmmaking is occasionally a bit rough around the edges, but Renton’s narration carries us over the bumpy passages. OK, it’s not one hundred per cent gold. “There’s final hits and final hits. What kind was this to be?” But I’ll take a clunker line or two as balance for the unfailingly killer first half hour, and for the many moments of transparent, frighteningly cynical revelation which follow. “There was no such thing as society, and even if there was I almost certainly had nothing to do with it. For the first time in my adult life, I was almost content.”

As far as I’m concerned, Renton’s narration is equal, perhaps even superior to Liotta’s in Goodfellas. Couched in the colorful phrasing is a stark and ugly confessional that leads us deep into Renton’s identity and his smacked-out world. Other movies have shown the world of drugs with similar clarity and some (like The Salton Sea, which I nearly wrote as my ‘worst’ for this entry) have imitated the accomplishments of Boyle, Hodge and McGregor. But where other movies have great narration, Trainspotting has incredible lyrics.  

Voiceover Highlight: I can’t just run the first act and I’ve already noted the society line that may be the true highlight, so I’ll cherrypick a line that long ago crept into my life. “Under the normal run of things I’d have nothing to do with the cunt. But this was not the normal run of things.”

The Worst

Bowling For Columbine (2002)
Director: Michael Moore
Writer: Michael Moore
Voice-over type: The Car Salesman

Michael Moore is charming. He’s personable and funny, and while he long ago stopped being the regular guy we saw in Roger & Me, he still plays the character to a ‘T’. More to the point, he uses the persona in exactly the same way a stereotypical salesman uses wiles to sell crappy products. Jokes and anecdotes and downhome ‘me-too’ storytelling all gloss over the fact that the backbone of the deal you’re about to sign has been ravaged by scoliosis.

Problem is, Moore has a perfectly reasonable point. He has good observations to make about American society and our national character, and he’s not stupid. But he’d rather be funny than factual, and his work is sloppy as a result. Graphics and animation help cover facts and conclusions Moore can’t substantiate, and his friendly narration coats the chunky pill so it’s a lot easier to swallow.

I debated for a while about whether including a documentary here counted as coloring outside the lines. (And just as I thought about balancing Trainspotting with The Salton Sea, I considered balancing this faux doc with another by highlighting the amazing narration in 1971’s The Hellstrom Chronicle.) But the schism between Moore’s statements and footage, and between his intent and reality, takes this movie outside the realm of documentary. It’s an editorial, a half-invented one at that, and a film not to be trusted. Narration is the core of the disingenuous sales pitch.

Voiceover lowlight: ” This was my first gun. I couldn’t wait to go out and shoot up the neighborhood.”