From ''Once and Again'' to this Christmas' movie blockbusters, that incessant drone you hear is just bad writing, says Mark Harris

By Mark Harris
December 03, 1999 at 05:00 AM EST
  • TV Show

Voice-overs are the latest Hollywood cop-out

You talkin’ to me? Huh? You talkin’ to me? I think you must be talkin’ to me, ’cause there’s nobody else in the room. And the thing is, I really wish you’d stop.

Poor Travis Bickle. If he were still driving that taxi today, he wouldn’t be able to get a moment’s peace by unwinding with a movie or a TV show, where narration, voice-overs, breaking the fourth wall and talking directly to the viewer is reaching epidemic proportions. Every once in a long, long while, this works. But most of the time, it’s lazy, undramatic, and bad, bad writing.

As an unfortunate example, check out ABC’s ”Once and Again,” the acclaimed new series about two fortysomething divorced parents (Sela Ward and Billy Campbell) tentatively finding romance. It pains me to say it, since ”Once and Again” comes from Ed Zwick and Marshall Herskovitz, who brought us the beloved ”thirtysomething” and beloved-and-swiftly-beheaded ”My So-Called Life,” but this show just ain’t working. (It has less in common with the two series mentioned above than with the same duo’s ”Relativity,” another series built around a single relationship that went south fast.)

”Once and Again” has some fine acting and writing, but — as its plummeting ratings seem to attest — it’s fatally underdramatized. Every time the incessantly self-regarding characters build toward something un-airbrushed — a fight, say, or really bad behavior — the action cuts away to Ward or Campbell, against a black backdrop, talking to… who? Their shrinks? You? Themselves? Whatever — it’s the kiss of death. Ward usually smiles, as if she’s completely enchanted by whatever petite wrinkle in her recent or distant past she’s remembering. And Campbell, a decent actor who does not have a face built for introspection, manages to look completely unplugged, brain-wise.

In any case, the problem isn’t only that their tone is so becalmed that it looks as if a logo for Maxwell House Decaf Blend should appear in the corner. It’s that what they’re saying is usually some dull piece of Psych 101 malarkey that adds up to ”I was gonna yell at my kid, but then I remembered my dad used to yell at me.” Or ”I’m lonely. Are other people lonely too?” Good dramatic writing doesn’t stop the drama dead so that the main characters can spell out their motives. It shapes the drama in ways that allow you to figure them out or — God forbid! — leaves the motives ambiguous.

And good movie adaptations of books don’t let you hear the rustle of pages turning. The next six weeks are going to bring a stunning number of movies based on novels and memoirs, among them ”Angela’s Ashes,” ”The Talented Mr. Ripley,” ”Snow Falling on Cedars,” ”Girl, Interrupted,” ”The Green Mile,” ”The Cider House Rules,” and ”The End of the Affair”. Some of them have a lot of narration. A LOT. So when it starts, here’s something to consider: Is what you’re hearing really something that the movie couldn’t possibly have revealed to you through action or dialogue (not to mention something you couldn’t have figured out yourself)? If the answer is yes, I guarantee you you’re seeing bad moviemaking. Hollywood, I’m talkin’ to you. And what I’m saying is: Shut up already.

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  • 09/21/99-04/15/02
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