When characters break the fourth wall, there's usually a reason. Breaking the fourth wall means addressing the camera directly, and thereby acknowledging, at least to some extent, that the character is being watched. Whether it's done on TV or in a movie, the goal is usually to provide a level of intimacy. If we get a character's inner thoughts unfiltered, we know them better than we might otherwise, even if it's an IT girl. We can understand better why they do what they do.
Of course, that's not the only reason to address the camera directly. Sometimes, characters break the fourth wall for jokes. When a character knows they're on TV or in a movie, and is able to make fun of that fact, it's typically pretty amusing. It's not what we expect them to do, which is why it works. Whether it's used for comedy or drama, there are plenty of characters throughout TV and film that break the fourth wall.
House of Cards features a political climate that's almost as toxic as Washington actually is these days. As part of its conceit, we follow Congressman Frank Underwood as he accumulates power and speaks to us about how he plans to use it.
In this instance, the fourth wall breaks feel like the main character letting us in on secrets. So much of House of Cards is about scheming and manipulation, but Frank never lies to us. He tells us the truth, and so we become his co-conspirators, involving ourselves in everything he does to an uncomfortable level. He makes us his accomplices.
20th Century Fox
The fun of Deadpool comes from how self-aware it is. Deadpool knows he's in a movie, and he's happy to joke with us about that movie's plot. Of course, Deadpool is also delightfully profane and violent, which is certainly part of his appeal.
In both Deadpool films, Deadpool's ability to talk directly to the camera is used as an effective gag for jokes. Deadpool may be self-aware, but that doesn't mean the movies are particularly thoughtful about how they're telling his story. Still, that hardly matters if you can get enough laughs to sustain a fairly straightforward superhero origin story.
Ferris Bueller is the kind of kid every young person wishes they were. He's care-free, fun, and he seems to be very aware that he's in a movie without caring very much. The post-credits scene for Ferris Bueller's Day Off doesn't set up a sequel, but it does provide a delightful ribbing for those folks who stick around through the credits.
Life is but a game for Ferris, and being in a movie only makes things more fun. Ferris Bueller's Day Off is great at reminding us that life doesn't have to be so serious all the time. In breaking the fourth wall, it reinforces that message.
Elliot Alderson is paranoid and delusional. Although he rarely looks at the camera, he does spend quite a bit of time narrating his thoughts to us in the audience. No one else is privy to those thoughts, even as we come to understand that we aren't the only people in Elliot's head.
For Mr. Robot, the direct address to the audience feels like another piece of evidence suggesting Elliot's instability. After all, talking to people who aren't there is not exactly normal behavior. In the case of Mr. Robot, though, we're always watching Elliot, whether he knows it or not.
Jordan Belfort is one of the worst people ever committed to film. In The Wolf of Wall Street, Jordan often explains exactly how he's ripping off everyone he knows directly to the camera. He's living a life of exorbitant wealth, and he's inviting everyone in the audience to become as intoxicated by it as he is.
The Wolf of Wall Street is an angry movie that masquerades as a comedy. It's about truly terrible people, and when Jordan addresses the camera directly, he seems to be trying to get us to understand him on a human level. It works, which only makes the movie's indictment of him even worse.
Buena Vista Pictures
Rob Gordon is the kind of man-boy who ranks everything in his life, and he also spends quite a bit of High Fidelity speaking directly to the audience. This provides us a window into his mind, of course, but it also gives us a sense of why he's having so much trouble in his relationships.
Rob is superficial, even in his addresses to the camera. We understand this long before the character figures it out, and the movie gives us a chance to root for Rob as he tries to better himself and improve his relationships. The fourth wall breaks make Rob understandable, even as we recognize his numerous flaws.
Clarissa Explains it All was a show about a teenage girl who explained the problems in her life directly to the camera. In that way, the audience became almost like a diary for her, knowing things that no one else on the show could know.
That provides viewers with a really intimate view of the character they're watching. We already feel close to the characters we watch on screen, but when the fourth wall is broken, we become even closer to them and are able to understand their thoughts in a way we might not be able to without the direct address of the camera.
Zack Morris doesn't just break the fourth wall, he can actually stop time. That's one of the conceits of Saved by the Bell, and it's part of what kept the show feeling fresh and original. Because Zack can stop time, he can provide commentary on the other characters, and on the scene, he's currently involved in.
It adds a meta element to the show, one that makes the show's lead character seem hyper-aware that he's on TV. Although Saved by the Bell could get serious, breaking the fourth wall was often used for jokes or to emphasize a point. It was a smart twist on a typical high school show.
Everything in Fight Club is cynical and dark. It's representative of an era where people were fed up, and many of its formal choices, including breaking the fourth wall, stem from that attitude. The narrator breaks the fourth wall throughout the film, providing narration and, as Tyler Durden, delivering a diatribe directly to the camera.
Not only does Tyler look down the camera's lens, but the camera itself also seems to break, suggesting the artifice of everything we're watching. Fight Club is a movie about fakeness, and it's really good at highlighting the money-first nature of everything we do, even when it comes to watching a movie.
For most of Goodfellas, Henry Hill is narrating the story of his life in the mob, but he only starts speaking directly to the camera at the end of the film. In addressing us directly, Henry is able to act as our shepherd as we learn about the violent, often entertaining world of the mob.
Because we're being ushered through the world of the mob by a mobster, you can be in awe of him one second, and disgusted by him the next. As he talks to us, Henry becomes more sympathetic and more familiar, even as we see him unravel.
30 Rock's premise didn't revolve around any kind of wall breaking, but Liz Lemon did directly address the camera a few time throughout the comedy's run. The most notable example comes when Liz looks at the camera after delivering a line about the quality of Verizon and asks "Can we have our money now?"
It's a moment that hilariously and transparently underlines the commerce behind all of our favorite shows. It isn't really Liz addressing the camera, it's Tina Fey, frustrated that she has to use her own show to plug products she doesn't care about. Her breaking the fourth wall is almost a cry for help.
The fourth wall doesn't really exist on Moonlighting. The show has characters and storylines, of course, but Moonlighting was so willing to play with the TV form that it broke basically every standard convention. Both of the show's central characters address the camera directly.
What's more, episodes of the show could be interrupted by studio execs telling them they were canceled or feature references to the fighting that was going on on-set between the show's stars. Moonlighting did whatever it wanted, and that made it one of the most delightful shows ever made. Even today few TV shows are as daring as Moonlighting was.
Fleabag is a work of pure genius, and one of the smartest things about it is the way that it uses the camera. Fleabag is a messy human who addresses the camera directly throughout the show's two seasons, often revealing thoughts that she never speaks out loud.
As the show progresses, though, we realize that we as the audience have actually been enabling Fleabag. We've kept her from dealing with her feelings by expressing them to those around her. We are a crutch that she must move beyond, and as such, Fleabag's decision to break the fourth wall becomes part of the story.
Scrubs was always looking for new ways to push the envelope in terms of what was possible on a TV sitcom. Although JD doesn't break the fourth wall in every episode, we do hear him narrating his own thoughts in pretty regularly.
There's also one scene that plays with direct address but keeps cutting to characters that JD is talking to. In a separate episode, after the show moved from NBC to ABC, JD also points to the corner of the screen where the ABC logo is and says "Huh, that's new." Every time Scrubs broke the fourth wall, it did it for laughs, and it usually paid off.
Burt doesn't address the camera throughout Mary Poppins, but the movie's very first scene does feature a fourth wall break. When the chimney sweep notices the camera, he proceeds to direct us towards the Banks house. He takes us to the story, and once we get there, he lets us watch it without any further interruption.
Because we meet Burt in this manner, though, we immediately connect with him as an outsider, like us, who is coming into the world of this story. Burt isn't an essential part of Mary Poppins' plot, but he is essential to its feel, and by breaking the fourth wall, we understand that immediately.
The Big Short is almost like a mirror image of The Wolf of Wall Street. The fourth-wall breaks in The Big Short are designed to explain complex financial concepts that led to the collapse of the housing market. Jared Vennett, Ryan Gosling's character, is the one who ushers us through the story.
As he does, he takes time to talk us through everything so that we (hopefully) understand it. It works surprisingly well and leaves us with a feeling of outrage that we might not have if the fourth wall had remained unbroken. It's because we get invited into the story that we're able to understand how terrible it really is.
Mike Meyers is a big fan of breaking the fourth wall, and his best use of that trick comes in Wayne's World. Within Wayne's World, there's one joke that works particularly well. After Wayne declares that he won't sell out to any corporate sponsor, we see him directly address the camera with a series of branded products.
The not so subtle product placement is meant to undercut the idea of selling out, and it's also an incredibly effective joke. Even if the products are part of a joke, they're still getting their time in the spotlight. The sponsors are happy, the audience is entertained, and Wayne's World becomes a wild success story.