In fictions like movies, TV, and even theatre, the term “fourth wall” refers to an imaginary wall that exists within the world of the work, that we the audience take the place of. Most works respect this boundary. Some works take a sledgehammer to it, communicating directly to the audience and letting us know it knows it’s fictional. These films belong to the latter category.
Boy howdy, that Merc With A Mouth will talk to anyone, including and especially the audience. Director Tim Miller successfully captured Wade Wilson’s propensity for self-awareness and medium-busting with techniques that range from asking the camera to pan away during a violent scene, to calling out star Ryan Reynolds’ previous superhero flop Green Lantern. Make sure you stay tuned for that trademark Marvel post-credits sting, too.
Horror films are supposed to mess with the audience, but Funny Games goes the extra mile. In both the original German and American remake, our murderous villains regularly smirk at the camera, taunt the audience for desiring the carnage that will take place, and in one ballsy instance, literally rewind the film when an event doesn’t go their way. Even Leatherface would be like, “C’mon dudes, that feels unfair.”
Mel Brooks is such a prolific fourth wall breaker, I could’ve written this entire list about him. His piece de resistance, if I may be so pretentious, is the classic Star Wars spoof Spaceballs. At one key moment, when Darth Helmet and Colonel Sanders (I’ll hold while you laugh… and welcome back!) are figuring out how to thwart our heroes, they decide to rent the movie Spaceballs. That’s right: they rent the movie they’re currently in the middle of making. What results is a comedic set piece equal parts hilarious and space-time continuum disrespecting.
Sometimes, it only takes one key piece of fourth-wall breaking filmmaking to jar the audience into discomfort. For the majority of its running time, Wanted is a violent, stylish action flick that manages to respect the boundaries of the audience. Then, in its final moment (hell, its final line), James McAvoy turns directly to the camera and asks us a very pointed seven word question. Your mileage may vary on how effective this moment actually is; for me, it feels like a college bro who’s, like, really into Bukowski trying hard to be “edgy” without quite knowing what that means.
Fourth wall! Fourth wall! Party time! Excellent! This classic SNL comedy is chock full of moments that call out its own identity as a movie (including the Scooby Doo ending which, frankly, more movies should use). For me, none is more effective than this commercial-skewering sequence which makes fun of selling out, people who think they’re above selling out, and the ham-fistedness of product placements — all the while shoving in product placements it’s making fun of. Et tu, branded content divisions of every website?
David Fincher’s nihilistic ‘90s film takes the long con approach to fourth wall breaking. In this scene, the Narrator explains Tyler Durden’s movie projector prank of splicing pornography into family films (shout-outs to Durden pointing to a cigarette burn as it appears, confusing projectionists worldwide). Then at the end, as our Narrator and Marla watch the world collapse around them, we see a split-second frame of a man and his, um, homemade soap bar. Does this mean that Durden, the fictional character we just watched, was the real-life projectionist of the film this entire time? If so, how does he feel about the industry’s transition to digital vis-a-vis penis pranks?
Steven Soderbergh’s star-studded sequel is a weirder, more jarring follow up to the relatively simple charms of Ocean’s Eleven. In its narrative, full of digressions and diversions, there is no plot strand odder than Tess, played by Julia Roberts, impersonating Julia Roberts, with whom she shares a physical similarity. This meta move is certainly bizarre and, depending on your taste, either genius or stupid. For me, it’s somewhere in the middle, as I can’t help but laugh at audacious moments like Tess speaking to Julia Roberts on the phone.
George of the Jungle
I am an unapologetic fan of this Brendan Fraser-starring comedy. It taught the kids it was targeted to the joy and fun of absurdist, fourth wall-breaking comedy in a vein similar to Animaniacs, leaving them savvier as a result. There are plenty of moments to choose from, but nothing calls out the artifice of being a film itself like recognizing that you exist in a world with an omniscient narrator, and getting into a fight with him. Bertolt Brecht Of The Jungle, anyone?
And now, dear reader, I shatter the fourth wall between your screen and I and speak to you directly! Which moment caught you the most off guard? Which moments did we miss? Give me a follow on Twitter to see all kinds of jokes about retweeting, DMs, and other subjects that let you know it knows it’s a Twitter account.