Movies almost always start with a collection of words and thoughts crafted into narratives, yet cinema rarely revels in this beauty. Sure, now and then we’ll get a great bit of rapid-fire banter, or attractive people having long discussions as they journey through European cities, but rarely are there bouts of real word nerdery – moments when characters actually talk about wordcraft, delight in proper use of the word myriad, and correct each other’s language faux pas.
Even films about writers and writing diverge from the actual act. A writer might type furiously on a typewriter, or quote a compelling author, but their stories are generally about something else. It’s the melodrama, scandal and eroticism the filmmaker always captures, not the craft.
But when a film does dip into grammar and wordiness, the results are often the best mix of nerd indulgence and education – moments that speak to grammatical frustration while correcting common errors through the rush of entertainment.
If Weird Al piqued your interest, you should check out this movies.
We often talk about actors who should do books on tape, but what about grammar lessons? Thomas Jay Ryan, aka Henry Fool, has a way of imbuing every thrilling and mundane moment with irresistible charismatic wiliness – even in a lesson about the differences between there, they’re and their. With a cigarette hanging from his lip and a few taps of piano keys, he gives Simon a grammar lesson that’s both absurd and somehow natural, like much of Hal Hartley’s aesthetic.
We have viral videos of celebs reading tweets, or giving dramatic readings of comedic rants, but what about some good, old-fashioned grammar bites? Imagine Ryan digging into the one and only use for “it’s,” or ranting about how “ ‘ve” is not the same as “of.”
Kiss Kiss Bang Bang
People generally take offense when someone interrupts them to correct their grammar, like Michelle Monaghan’s Harmony does in Kiss Kiss Bang Bang. She teaches Robert Downey Jr.’s Harry about adverbs, and he is obviously put off by her interruption. But, just like life, this annoying correction becomes something that sticks in the mind … kind of.
Harry remembers the lesson, and most of her explanation, but his memory is just a little off. He tries to pay it forward and teach Val Kilmer’s Gay Perry, but Harry is completely over his head. Perry immediately shoots him down: “What, fuckhead? Badly’s an adverb! Who taught you grammar? Get out.”
Ball of Fire
Where other films offer a scene or two, Billy Wilder and Howard Hawks’ Ball of Fire offers a whole film of word play. Gary Cooper plays a grammarian penning an encyclopedia alongside a cadre of out-of-touch intellectuals. A man who considers split infinitives a “serious crime” (and would go crazy in this “to boldly go” world) realizes his section on slang is terribly out of date and heads out to correct the error – which leads him right to Barbara Stanwyck, a singer on the run from the police. She speaks through a mess of slang that fascinates him, but it’s not enough to keep him from correcting her on phrases like “on account of because.”
The film certainly got a boost from its excellent pedigree as it earned four Oscar nominations, but it’s also a great example of the potential of word nerdery in cinema. If romantic comedy through the eyes of a stodgy and sheltered grammarian can be successful, so can other less extreme manifestations.
The ‘90s film Threesome offers many levels of ridiculousness in its story of Josh Charles’ gay student Eddy, torn between the lusting Alex (Lara Flynn Boyle) and macho pervert Stuart (Stephen Baldwin). One of the best is Alex’s fervent love of vocabulary.
Where must seductions require erotic language, Alex just needs big words. “I find libraries very erotic,” she tells Eddy. He reads out loud from Hawthorne’s “Rappaccini’s Daughter” and she proves it – writhing and climaxing on the desk without so much as a touch. The entire film juxtaposes the goofy with the intellectual to great effect – scenes of public dry-humping intermingled with seductive uses of the word “concupiscence.”
Akeelah and the Bee
Though many grammatical celebrations have an air of sexiness, some thrive by showing kids kicking ass – and not in that “smarter than a..” wave where kids trump adults who’ve long forgotten the facts they were once tasked with memorizing.
In Akeelah and the Bee, there’s an innately talented kid who buckles down and hones her spelling skills for the national spelling bee. There’s much word nerdery as she learns how to dissect large words, and feelings of audience inferiority as she and her fellow spellers play Scrabble and lay down complex, high point words in a blink of the eye.
Most wordy adventures or diversions have a pretty rigid set of confines – they exist in explorations of class differences and privileged intellectualism. In Ed Harris’ sophomore turn as director and star, however, language becomes a perfect bit of filler in a gritty western tale of badass cowboys.
Words are their bond, as Viggo Mortensen’s Everett Hitch teaches Ed Harris’ weathered Virgil Cole the finer points of language. When Virgil can’t find the word to describe what he’s thinking, Everett helps, their grammarian banter the punctuation between gritty displays of cowboy testosterone and dusty shootouts.
The Last Days of Disco
All of Whit Stillman’s work has some level of wordy education. His characters love to be cerebral and argue about everything from Fourierism to the sexiness of Scrooge McDuck. But in Stillman’s world, grammar isn’t only the domain of the just-out-of-school intellectuals.
Grammar is also a playground for money-laundering criminals. Instead of hunting for nervousness and tells, Bernie spots lies through his employees’ use of language, calling out Chris Eigeman’s Des when he uses the past perfect to explain away an earlier omission.
Sadly, the clip isn’t online, but the time-stamp and dialogue can be found here.