Sin City and Love Actually

I seem to remember hearing somewhere—it was probably on Project Greenlight, the first season, where you wondered how any of the people working on that set actually got jobs in Hollywood—that voiceovers in film are a cop-out, that the extensive use of them is almost always an attempt to mask deficiencies in the storytelling, in the plot, or in the acting. But, for what it’s worth—and I admit that it’s probably not worth much—I saw two films today that I thought used voiceovers in a way that not only did not take away from the films, but, indeed, added to their artistic merit immensely.

The film that Stephanie and I watched in the afternoon, Sin City, benefits enormously from the narration. Thought balloons are and always have been crucial storytelling elements in the realm of sequential art. In comics nowadays, you’re likely to find different fonts used to distinguish between the thoughts of characters, or even different background colors. Robert Rodriguez, who was so obsessed with recreating the comic book aesthetic on film that he brought in the creator of the source material (Frank Miller) to co-direct, had to find some way to translate this unique storytelling device to film, so he did it with voiceover. And it worked brilliantly. Mickey Rourke as Marv, Bruce Willis as Hartigan—these casting decisions were master-strokes.

With every film comic book film I see, I feel as though we’re getting one step closer to that one film that will get everything perfectly right-on. This one came very, very close.

The second film we watched today, Richard Curtis’s ridiculously enjoyable Love Actually, benefits more subtly from the use of voiceover. In fact, perhaps I’m even using the wrong term to describe the introductory speech which Hugh Grant’s character offers during the opening montage. Perhaps you wouldn’t call this a voiceover at all. But I would, and it’s my webpage, so let’s just get on with this, huh?

Hugh Grant’s speech doesn’t serve to move the story along, per se. It’s not really a part of the film’s aesthetic, as was the case with Sin City, as there is not a shred of voiceover to be found in the balance of the picture. Instead, it offers the viewer/listener a glimpse into the film’s ethos, if you will. In the mood I was in when the film came on, I wasn’t sure that I’d be willing to sit through it. But the voiceover at the beginning offered me everything I needed to know about what was to come. It let me know that this film would be one of hope and humor. And that was precisely the sort of film I needed to see.

I’m not sure that IMDB has this quoted exactly as it should be, but it’ll have to do. Here’s the speech in question:

Whenever I get gloomy with the state of the world, I think about the arrivals gate at Heathrow Airport. General opinion’s starting to make out that we live in a world of hatred and greed, but I don’t see that. It seems to me that love is everywhere. Often it’s not particularly dignified or newsworthy, but it’s always there - fathers and sons, mothers and daughters, husbands and wives, boyfriends, girlfriends, old friends. When the planes hit the Twin Towers, as far as I know none of the phone calls from the people on board were messages of hate or revenge - they were all messages of love. If you look for it, I’ve got a sneaky feeling you’ll find that love actually is all around.

I can’t even describe to you the weight that was lifted from my shoulders and from my soul as I listened to those words. I was hurting when I sat down on the couch to watch this film, hurting so very badly, in ways that I’ve described far too often in this space. I was hurting, but when I heard those words I knew that this film, in some small way, would heal me.

And it did, it really did.

The point of all this: Fuck that Project Greenlight idiot, or whoever it was, that said that voiceovers were weak. These voiceovers worked for me.