Breaking the fourth wall can work one of two ways. It can either take the crowd out of the film or make them feel like they are part of it. It’s an intriguing narrative choice that has to be done right or it can ruin and entire movie and it all starts with the right character portrayed the right way. This weekend one of the best fourth wall breakers in cinema returns to the big screen in “Deadpool 2” and what better way to celebrate the sequel than with a list focusing on the best characters in movie history who have taken the time to speak directly to the audience to make them part of the fun. Who knows, Deadpool will probably be among these cinematic greats. So, without further ado this is my list of the Top 10 Fourth Wall Breaking Characters in Film.
For this list I looked at characters that broke the fourth wall in movies, meaning they acknowledged their audience directly or in some major way acknowledged they were in a movie by breaking character. For those unfamiliar with the term, the “fourth wall” refers to the wall of the screen through which we, the audience, see the action so when a character breaks the fourth wall they basically acknowledge the screen and, as a result, the audience as well. These characters were rated based on their effective use of the fourth wall break whether it was for comedy, storytelling or for the purpose of exposition. The more memorable the characters and their fourth wall breaking antics the more likely they are to be on this list.
To be clear these are not simple overheard narrators meant to tell you a story. Those character that only engage in voice overs won’t count. For characters to be featured on this list they must break the fourth wall within the context of the film narrative. That means that a narrator CAN be on this list as long as he turns to face the audience to speak directly to them rather than just telling the story over the action. There’s a difference between a fourth wall break and simple narration is my point.
So, let’s get to it shall we! Let me know you’re favorite fourth-wall breaking characters in film and look for my review of “Deadpool 2” this weekend.
10. Paul, “Funny Games”
One of two sociopathic murderers in the 2007 shot-for-shot remake of “Funny Games”, Paul breaks the fourth wall subtly several times including one great moment at the end that brings his sadistic mindset full circle. Paul occasionally faces the camera, acknowledging the audience as they “watch” his game and even outright asks the viewers if they believe the family they have targeted will live through the night. But his best moment comes late in the film when we see the final victim start to get the upper hand and kill Paul’s partner in crime Peter. Paul then grabs a television remove and rewinds the scene, breaking the fourth wall and having a do over of what had just transpired where he comes out on top. A lot has been said about this moment but there are some who interpret this as Paul having played through a worst-case scenario in his head and we get to see how he figures his way around his victims moves time after time. When you think about it that way then maybe his fourth wall breaks are nothing more than an opportunity for the audience to see into the twisted mind of a true psychopath.
9. Hedley Lamarr, “Blazing Saddles”
Director Mel Brooks is known for including fourth wall breaks in his movies and many of his characters could have made this list, but the one that stood out for me was Hedley Lamarr, the evil attorney and antagonist of Brooks’ sendup to westerns “Blazing Saddles”. It takes a while for Lamarr to fully break the wall but when he does all hell breaks loose as he hails a taxi and asks to be driven off of the set. Lamarr acknowledges people on the street and even hides in the Grauman’s Chinese Theatre where he views the premier of “Blazing Saddles” despite the film still being produced with HIM in it. It’s probably the most out there use of the fourth wall break on this list and Lamarr caps it all off by watching the movie we, the audience, are also watching. It may not be a fourth wall break in the traditional sense, but it counts for this list because while he doesn’t acknowledge the audience directly, Hedley Lamarr is responsible for the movie going completely off the rails and taking the action into the “real world”. Serious you have to see the end of “Blazing Saddles” to understand how twisted it all gets and Lemarr as a character puts the cherry on top.
8. The Narrator/Tyler Durden “Fight Club”
You might think I’m cheating for having two characters in the same entry here but if you’ve SEEN “Fight Club” you know why the unnamed narrator and his friend Tyler Durden are grouped together. Spoilers aside, both of these characters are capable fourth wall breakers as the narrator isn’t shy of speaking directly to the crowd. One particular moment shows him and Tyler both talking to the viewers explaining who Tyler is while also shedding some light on the human psyche. The projector booth scene alone is a fantastic use of the fourth wall break allowing the narrator to explain Tyler directly to the viewers and even giving some fun insight into how movies are projected. In a film with a lot of interesting twists and turns in its climax the narrator’s willingness to break the fourth wall isn’t just a great attempt to develop a key character, it’s also a clever way of hiding the movie’s big twist right in front of the audience. The best part is, once you realize that twist the narrator and Durden’s directly addressing the audience watching the film takes on a whole new meaning. They may not break the wall as much as others on this list, but when they do the moment is oh so satisfying.
7. Jordan Belfort, “The Wolf of Wall Street”
A cunning real-life stock broker, Jordan Belfort’s mentality was on full display in the 2013 biopic “The Wolf of Wall Street”. Played by Leonardo DiCaprio, Belfort is incredibly good at sweet talk and wordplay to draw in clients and earn his living. Charming and knowledgeable of his craft, Belfort often stops in the middle of the action to talk to the audience directly and, like the salesman he is, combines honestly and a bit of subtle manipulation to tell his own story. The audience can never quite buy in to Belfort’s explanations, making him something like an unreliable narrator, but he laces his fourth wall breaking moments with admissions of the questionable legality of his actions and his questionable drug use to make the audience feel he is confiding in them and lulls us into a sense of security that may or may not be justified. It’s a clever way of developing the character and allows Belfort to tell it like it is the same way the real Belfort did in the book the film was based on. DiCaprio, as always, offers a committed performance and totally sells each fourth wall break as well as convincing us that his character is fearless and ruthless enough to pull off the high stakes deals and cons that he did in real life.
6. Alvy Singer, “Annie Hall”
One of the most famous fourth wall breakers in cinema, Alvy Singer is one of Woody Allen’s most famous characters and for good reason. “Annie Hall” was, and still is, a work of comedic gold and a film that was harsh on reality in all the best ways. Alvy is at the center of it all trying to manage his relationship with the titular Annie. Several times in the film Alvy breaks the fourth wall, usually to muse with the audience about the subtleties of life and society. His most famous fourth wall break is when he criticizes a man in a movie line spouting pretentious knowledge of the works of Marshall McLuhan before bringing McLuhan onto the set to berate the man. Other times Alvy is more touching, especially with his closing narrative monologue, and sometimes he falls in the middle with jokes addressing his relationship with women. Say what you want about Woody Allen as a person, but Alvy as a character seems to have a great understanding for people and talks to us all the way we need to be addressed to get the point. As one of the original famous fourth wall breakers in cinema, Alvy speaks, literally and figuratively, to the self-important know-it-alls within us all and helps the viewer understand that we are not alone in feeling awkward and anxious in our pursuit of love.
5. Alfie, “Alfie”
Whether it’s the 1966 original or the 2004 remake both versions of “Alfie” are fourth wall breakers of legend. Adapted from the stage play of the same name Alfie breaks the fourth wall by often justifying his actions why contradicting himself when he actually acts. As a womanizer Alfie teaches the audience numerous lessons through self-reflection as he moves from woman to woman and experiences revelations about his non-committal attitude. It all comes to a head in both films with a touching reflection from Alfie on who he has been and how he has failed to find his peace of mind. The best part about Alfie is he talks to us, the viewers, like we’re old friends. We act as a journal of sorts, often times being tasked with questioning who he is trying to convince, us or himself. As a character Alfie is a fantastic example of fourth wall breaking done right as he serves as a guide for the audience not just through the film’s story, but through life as well. He offers us warnings and words of wisdom that he, himself, often ignores which makes him one of the most relatable characters on this countdown.
4. Rob Gordon, “High Fidelity”
The ultimate countdown maker of film, Rob Gordon has a top five for nearly everything throughout “High Fidelity”. A self-proclaimed music expert Rob spews top fives about different song subjects, breakups and other topics of discussion to the audience who he addresses throughout most of the movie. He even begins the film with a great monologue about the concern parents have over the culture of violence while acknowledging the hypocrisy of a culture that allows kids to listen to music that inspires and even provokes misery. As Rob discusses his love life and his passion for music with the audience we begin to relate to him as he also discusses how people fit together and what factors, including hobbies, bring people to become friends or couples. Few characters have ever looked at life quite life Rob Gordon. Much like Alvy Singer Gordon became a voice for a generation to examine the realities of their world, especially when it comes to love. Rob also personifies the voice many of us hear in our own heads as we try to make sense of our interests and emotions and process where we’re going and where we’ve been. He’s a old soul that the world could probably use a bit more of these days.
3. Wayne Campbell, “Wayne’s World”
I’ve touched on a lot of fourth wall breakers that are more intimate and symbolic, but as these next few entries prove the fourth wall break can also serve as a great tool for comedy. Wayne Campbell is probably second only to Austin Powers as Mike Myers most famous characters and addresses the audience as if the cameras were following him around for some twisted documentary television show…actually it is, because the titular “Wayne’s World” is a public access show in the context of the film. Wayne constantly breaks the wall by focusing on sponsors within the movie and expressing awareness of his own film including an “Oscar clip”. He and his sidekick Garth even spoof the concept of multiple endings in the closing of the film leading to the “Scooby–Doo” ending and a “mega happy” ending. Wayne is Mike Myers in his prime and a personified criticism of film actors, movies and movie makers in general as he pokes fun at cinematic tropes still relevant today with tongue and cheek winks at his viewers around every turn. “Wayne’s World” is still a classic piece of comedy gold and it’s because of Myers’ willingness to go meta and take things beyond the limits of the screen with his character that it works so well.
2. Deadpool, “Deadpool”
The inspiration for this list, Deadpool was a fourth wall breaking master before he hit the big screen in 2016. Even in the comics Deadpool has long been a self-aware superhero who isn’t afraid to tell those viewing his adventures that he knows his existence is one of ridiculous fiction. In the movie that character trait remained as Ryan Reynolds put his own abilities as a comedic actor to the ultimate test shooing off one liners and meta jokes referencing Deadpool’s awareness that he is in a movie. Deadpool even borrows from past fourth wall breaking characters, including my #1 which I’ll get to in a second, but remains fresh, fun and unique all the same. Whether he’s talking to the audience about his story, moving the camera because he thinks what happens next isn’t for squeamish eyes or referencing the screwed up timelines of the “X-Men” universe within which he resides Deadpool is a master of the fourth wall break in every way. Ryan Reynolds proved that the chance Fox took on allowing him some creative control of the character’s dark humor was worth the risk as he fully embraced the spirit of the character and did him long overdue justice on the big screen.
1. Ferris Beuller, “Ferris Beuller’s Day Off”
The absolute king of fourth wall breaks, Matthew Broderick’s Ferris Beuller is a legendary character who spends the entirety of “Ferris Beuller’s Day Off” skipping school and talking to the audience about life, offering insight into his friends and the faults that keep them from enjoying their own existence. His highly quotable one-liners are cinematic gold as he embarks on an adventure many of us can only dream of experiencing on our own. The character is so iconic as a fourth wall breaking entity that “Deadpool” even parodied him in an end credits scene. The brutally honest and carefree Beuller is the self-confident young man we all wished we could be in high school and he’s not afraid to tell the audience how he feels and why embracing life despite the risks is much better than playing it safe. Like many on this countdown, Beuller offers words of wisdom to the viewers, but delivers them with a great sense of humor and unapologetic conviction. Even with all that aside however his place on this list is justified simply by the fact that when you think of a fourth wall breaker Beuller’s name is probably the first that comes to mind. Simple as that.