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 Worst

American Beauty (1999)
Director: Sam Mendes
Writer: Alan Ball
Voice-over type: Post-mortem Smarm

The good news is that Lester Burnham is dead. The bad news is that you have to spend two hours with him anyway. His shade is only narrating a comparatively small amount of the film (maybe even being the smallest amount of voice-over on this list) but it’s still head-spinningly annoying.

There’s a lot to not like in the slick, well-made and hollow American Beauty, but I feel like Lester’s V.O. pretty much encapsulates everything wrong with the movie. Kevin Spacey seems unable to operate in any mode except smarmy and smug, even when he’s having afterlife epiphanies about how it’s all so beautiful (but at a length about 40 times longer than Itchykoo Park!). Those epiphanies, which are facile, Clinton-era platitudes of vague meaninglessness, become even more infuriating when delivered in those smug tones.

This film proves you don’t need to overdo the voice-over to have it become exceptionally, memorably annoying.

Voiceover lowlight: “I guess I could be pretty pissed off about what happened to me… but it’s hard to stay mad, when there’s so much beauty in the world. Sometimes I feel like I’m seeing it all at once, and it’s too much, my heart fills up like a balloon that’s about to burst… And then I remember to relax, and stop trying to hold on to it, and then it flows through me like rain and I can’t feel anything but gratitude for every single moment of my stupid little life… You have no idea what I’m talking about, I’m sure. But don’t worry… you will someday.”

The Best

Goodfellas (1990)
Director: Martin Scorsese
Writer: Nicholas Pileggi & Martin Scorsese
Voice-over type: The Fast Talking, Not Very Regretful Confessional

Hey, remember when I couldn’t imagine what would top A Christmas Story? How about this sucker?

The majesty of the voice-over in Goodfellas is not that it sounds like the book Wise Guy, upon which the film is based, but rather that it sounds like you’ve sidled up to Henry Hill at a bar and he’s begun regaling you with his life story.

That feeling of having a story told to you would make the voice-over in this film classic all on its own, but what really puts Goodfellas over the top is the tension in the narration itself. Hill is telling his story from the other side like Lester Burnham, but a very different other side. This time it’s the other side of the law; where Burnham is looking back on the lessons he learned from dying or whatever, Hill is trying to pretend like he learned some lessons, but the truth is that he really, really misses the good old days. That’s what sets the voice-over in Goodfellas apart from most other narrative devices – it’s all part of Hill’s own character arc.

Voiceover highlight: “Now the guy’s got Paulie as a partner. Any problems, he goes to Paulie. Trouble with the bill? He can go to Paulie. Trouble with the cops, deliveries, Tommy, he can call Paulie. But now the guy’s gotta come up with Paulie’s money every week no matter what. Business bad? Fuck you, pay me. Oh, you had a fire? Fuck you, pay me. Place got hit by lightning huh? Fuck you, pay me.”