The decision to “break the fourth wall” in filmmaking is a tough one. Breaking the fourth wall is when the actor looks directly at the camera, whether to deliver a line or share a facial expression. It’s a device popular in recent television comedies like Modern Family (2009) and the faux-documentary series The Office (2005), where it serves as an effective comedic tool. It allows the actors to let the audience in on the joke, and sometimes serves as the entire joke itself. It's also well-received on political drama House of Cards (2013), frequently performed by Kevin Spacey.
In drama, as with comedy, breaking the fourth wall can be hit-or-miss if it’s not utilized properly and consistently. The James Brown biopic Get On Up (2014) uses the device to let James Brown (Chadwick Boseman) quickly carry chunks of the narrative.
Director Tate Taylor spoke with Collider about the decision to break the fourth wall. There were a lot of reasons given, the first being his desire to avoid typical storytelling utilities of biopics - namely, their tendency to disseminate large amounts of information in rapid fashion by way of reporters talking about accolades, shots of newspaper headlines, and famous magazine covers. Most of the time, audiences watch biopics already knowing most of the things they’ll see. Taylor felt having James Brown speak to them would be unexpected, and therefore a welcome break from predictability.
He also felt the risky filmmaking tactic suited the audacious fortitude of the film’s central character.
“It just hit me. Who else in the world would find a way to come back from the dead, butt his way into his own movie, and [let audiences] hear it from the horses’s mouth. Who else could be so braggadocious but James Brown?
Brown was a powerful presence who needed to be in control of everything in his life. A confident actor is needed to pull it off, and Taylor felt “the brilliant Chad Boseman made it work.”
In some instances, though awkward, the utility succeeds. There is a segment where Brown’s manager Ben Bart (Dan Aykroyd) is rambling on about business hierarchy while Brown speaks to the camera about doing things his own way. In this moment, the device works as a means of facilitating the information in the manner Taylor mentioned.
“The asides to the camera would feel forced if the biopic were covering almost anyone other than the Godfather of Soul, but it works well in this film.” - Kimber Myers, Indiewire
But where the device fails is when it’s attached to scenes of depravity, such as the moment Brown knocks his wife (Jill Scott) across the kitchen for wearing a sexy Mrs. Claus outfit while the couple handed out money to neighborhood kids. After sending her flying across the kitchen, he approaches the camera and stares into it with guilt in his eyes. It’s a moment that feels like it’s trying to be apologetic for what just happened, but it comes across as grotesque.
As Odie Henderson of RogerEbert.com says, “The device is not used enough to be warranted nor clever, and in one case, it’s downright egregious. In an extremely effective long shot, Brown unleashes a horrific beating on his wife Dee Dee, after which he walks directly toward the camera, stops and sneers at us like a pomaded Freddy Krueger. It dragged me right out of the moment and the film.”
There’s an argument inspired by that quote. If you’re going to break the fourth wall, you have to do it consistently, and frequently enough, to merit the choice. Though Taylor's reasoning makes sense and comes from a logical place, whether or not Get On Up employed the tactic enough times, and for the same purpose, is a matter of opinion.