4) ‘Using’ The Audience: Alfie (1966), Annie Hall (1977), and We’re The Millers (2013)
To some extent, most fourth wall breaks could be seen as ‘using’ the audience. After all, without the audience, there would be no point to any breaking of the fourth wall. But the other entries have other, more specific purposes, or represent slightly more complex uses of the fourth wall device. In these three films – Annie Hall, Alfie, and We’re the Millers – the audience are specifically there so that the characters themselves can utilize them to create some kind of effect that is important to the movie as a whole.
The first in this category is Woody Allen’s excellent 1977 film, Annie Hall. The ubiquitous Allen plays Alvy Singer, a man whose relationship with Annie Hall ended a year ago. The movie begins with Alvy speaking directly into the camera, introducing the audience to his personality, his background, and his rather neurotic nature and obsessive thoughts. The movie then follows the unfolding of his and Annie’s tumultuous relationship.
At one point, they are standing in line at the cinema when a man behind them begins criticising the films of Marshall McLuhan. Also engaged in an argument with Annie, Alvy eventually steps forward to vent his frustration into the camera. The effect of course is that the audience are being used as a sort of additional character, someone to whom Alvy can turn during moments of great emotional intensity.
The fourth wall is broken for a very similar reason by John Cusack’s character Rob in High Fidelity, but Allen allows Alvy to go much further than Rob. The McLuhan critic tries to defend himself, but in a fantastic moment of fourth wall destruction, Alvy produces Marshall McLuhan himself, who tells the man he clearly knows nothing about his work. “Boy,” says Alvy to us, his confidant, “if life were only like this.” If only indeed, Alvy.
The audience are used in a similar way in Alfie, the 1966 Lewis Gilbert movie in which Michael Caine plays Alfie, a charming but selfish and disrespectful cad who thinks of nothing but his own pleasure, until a major health scare forces him to re-assess his values.
In the opening sequence, Alfie has extricated himself from his car (and his current – married – girlfriend, Siddie) greeted the audience, made sure we’re all settled in, and is about to introduce himself when Siddie calls him from the car and his name simultaneously appears on the screen. Alfie then proceeds to talk the viewer through his theory that married women are always in need of a good laugh, and that giving a married woman a good laugh is a sure fire way to….end that sentence how you like, but please bear in mind that Alfie uses the wonderfully British phrase ‘having it off.’
We then get a running commentary from Alfie throughout the film, usually explaining his personal thoughts (not the most gentlemanly of fellows, is our Alfie), or the reasons for his behaviour.
But as philandering and as emotionally distant as Alfie might be, there are actually two reasons that he is communicating with the audience, both of them quite revealing of his character. The first is that he is talking to the audience in order to explain and justify his actions. The second is that Alfie is actually only comfortable exposing any kind of personal or emotional experience to us, rather than to any of the other characters. Combined, these two demands on the audience turn the viewers into Alfie’s personal support.
As the movie progresses, and Alfie’s lifestyle begins to catch up with him, we learn that he is actually very attached to his inconvenient son, and that Alfie’s opinion on attachment is that it only leads to pain. At the movie’s most poignant point, we are the only ones to see him cry at the sight of a foetus, aborted by a woman he got pregnant in one-night stand.
Finally, Alfie regains his health and his preferred, single way of life. But he does not have his peace of mind. It leaves him wondering, he remarks, “what’s it all about?” He walks away, leaving us genuinely wishing we could answer him.
Lastly, Jason Sudekis breaks the fourth wall in the 2013 fake-family-road-trip-slash-drug-run comedy, We’re the Millers when he shrugs satirically at the camera during Jennifer Aniston’s garage strip-tease. The scene is, in all honesty, completely gratuitous – but this was a movie that featured Jennifer Aniston playing a stripper, and clearly it would have been rude to waste such an opportunity, so the best way to excuse it is for Sudekis to apologize to the audience. His expression is a perfect balance between acknowledgement of the absurdity, and simple acceptance that this is happening and there’s little he or anyone else can do about it. And it is – for some completely unfathomable reason – rather hard to disagree with him…
If life were only like this.