In David Wain’s new movie They Came Together, the lovers-to-be are played by Amy Poehler and Paul Rudd, but as they tell us early on, “there’s another character that’s just as important … New York City.” Over the course of the rom-com spoof, they steadily beat this cliché into the ground. One friend responds, “So New York City is like another character?” Likewise, in the marketing of the film, Wain has repeated the cliché again and again. On the bottom of the movie’s official site—just as on the poster—a special message reads:
Where did this overused turn of phrase come from? It may have been popularized by one of movie history’s most well-known critics: Roger Ebert. Ebert used the critical cliché early and often: In a 1985 review of Witness, he wrote that the lovers’ “physical attraction for each other is so strong it almost becomes another character in the movie.” And even as the phrase grew hoary, the prolific critic continued to employ it again and again. In a 1995 article on My Family, Ebert noted that the clan’s house “grows and changes through the decades with the family, until it becomes almost a character in itself.” Other non-characters on which he bestowed (or “almost” bestowed) characterdom in the coming years include the staircase from What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962), the rest home in Bubba Ho-Tep (2002), a space suit in My Favorite Martian (1999), the car in Starsky & Hutch (2004), and “the look of the film” in Insomnia (1997). While we found a couple of earlier instances of the phrase from theater and book reviews, we couldn’t find any earlier instances of people using it about movies, or nearly as frequently. Perhaps it’s no coincidence that other critics who write for his site also often employ the phrase.
While Ebert was a serial offender, he was far from the only one. In 1993, no less than Woody Allen said of Manhattan (1979) that he decided to shoot it in black-and-white because it would give “a great look at New York City, which is sort of one of the characters in the film.” The following year, Quentin Tarantino said that violence could be “like another character in the room” while discussing Reservoir Dogs (1992). While the threadbare notion is most common from critics, it’s not at all unusual to hear it out of the mouths of filmmakers as well. Discussing Drag Me to Hell (2009), writer-director Sam Raimi said that “the supernatural … is almost another character,” while in an interview about Pacific Rim (2013), writer-director Guillermo del Toro said he and his effects crew decided on “making the water become almost another character.”
As Wain’s particular use suggests, the No. 1 thing that’s most frequently offered up as the unbilled third or fourth character is New York City. In addition to the above descriptions of the Big Apple’s role in They Came Together and Manhattan, it’s been cited by critics and journalists as having uncredited roles in movies such as The Super (1991) and She’s Lost Control (2014), and TV shows including Gossip Girl (2007-2012), Louie (2010-present), and the new series Power (2014). Speaking about the new reboot of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (2014), star Will Arnett has been quoted as saying (without a hint of irony), “It’s almost like New York is another character in that film.”
But it’s nearly as clichéd to confer character status on the score, and even when all the music does is exactly what it’s supposed to do. Of the score for the acclaimed Japanese film The Woman in the Dunes (1964), Nathaniel Thompson writes that the music “is almost a character unto itself” for how it “insinuates itself into the fabric of the celluloid as imperceptibly as the sand.” Similarly, the scores of The Grey (2011), Insidious Chapter 2 (2013), and Ravenous (2013) have all been named as akin to supporting characters for how, respectively, they “build suspense,” “link up the action that is unraveling before our very eyes,” and “convey the type of movie we are watching”—none of which is beyond the duties of any horror score.
The analogy is stretched even further when used to describe props or abstract concepts: This is what happens when critics anoint as characters things like coffee makers (in a Chicago Tribune review of 2008’s Cloud 9), “doubt” (in a Vulture article about Asghar Farhadi’s 2013 drama The Past), and “bureaucracy” (as in another article from the Tribune on 2012’s Zero Dark Thirty). We should acknowledge that Slate has not been immune to the cliché, either, using it to describe everything from the role of music in Twin Peaks to Merida’s coiling and undulating hair in Brave (2012).
This is the biggest problem with most uses of the “almost another character” cliché: It suggests that the movies are little more than characters interacting with other characters, while, in the guise of a compliment, it denigrates the role of things like scores, themes, and a strong sense of place. After They Came Together, hopefully we’ll all take a tip from Wain and call a setting a setting, a city a city, and a coffee maker what it is: a highly effective prop.