Narrators: Sh-h-h-h!

The Gripe

The Gripe

January 05, 2007|By Michael Sragow | Michael Sragow,Sun Movie Critic

"Don't shoot the piano player, he's doing the best he can," said the sign on an Old West saloon, but these days, art theater customers may grumble, "Please, please shoot the narrator."

In movies like 1993's The Age of Innocence or 2006's Perfume and Little Children, the voice-over is so incessant you feel as if you're watching storybook theater.

The filmmakers over-rely on the voices of Joanne Woodward in The Age of Innocence, John Hurt in Perfume and Will Lyman in Little Children to set mood and tone. So these soundtrack storytellers end up recapitulating action we can comprehend without their help.

"Often, voice-over is a laidback thing," that great actor Clive Owen told me two years ago. "It's vague and phoned in afterward."

Owen reached a rare peak of voice-over art in his breakthrough, Croupier (1999), a study of a would-be writer turned casino table operator. Owen's tart, terse narration draws viewers straight into his character's mental turmoil. His and director Mike Hodge's goal was to be "incisive" - and at 91 minutes, Croupier is.

At 133 minutes, 148 minutes and 130 minutes, respectively, one could never accuse The Age of Innocence, Perfume and Little Children of incisiveness. And part of the problem is that the filmmakers use their voice-over as a verbal crutch while they limp to the finish line.

michael.sragow@baltsun.com

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