The following posts contains SPOILERS for Logan, and also for The Cable Guy, just in case you care about Jim Carrey movies from 20 years ago.

Webster’s Dictionary defines a cliché as “a trite phrase or expression ... something that has become overly familiar or commonplace” — like, for example, beginning a thinkpiece with the dictionary definition of the topic you’re about to explore.

Not all clichés are bad. Some can be redeemed by talented filmmakers. Others are so hackneyed they’re kind of fun in a winking sort of way. If there was never another movie where a killer methodically explained their plan step-by-step for the benefit of the audience while the hero made an otherwise impossible escape, the world would be a poorer place for it.

But there are some clichés that have long since past their expiration date, and which demand immediate suspension from usage, if not permanent and irrevocable retirement. I’m sure you all can think of one or two that drive you particularly crazy. The one that I personally cannot stand, the line I never want to hear again, is the following:

“This isn’t a movie! This is real life!”

There are endless variations of this one across many mediums and genres; sometimes it’s “TV show” instead of “movie.” But the idea is always the same: A character either knowingly or unknowingly breaks the fourth wall to acknowledge that, unlike other works of fiction with their warped notions of reality, this thing we are watching or reading is “real.” Of course, the thing we are watching or reading isn’t real either; it’s just another layer of fiction, albeit a more self-aware one.

Here’s a classic example from 1996’s The Cable Guy, starring Jim Carrey as a cable installer who’s so obsessed with television that he’s based his entire life around it. The film’s climax takes place atop a giant satellite dish, where Matthew Broderick’s character Steven, who becomes the object of the cable guy’s unhealthy fixation, speaks The Line That Shall Not Be Uttered Henceforth:

“This isn’t a movie! This is reality! There’s a difference!” Steven yells just as a helicopter ironically zooms into view to call his statement into question.

The Cable Guy was part of a slew of mid-to-late-’90s Hollywood movies that played with the line between fiction and non-fiction. Some actively interrogated the very nature of reality — or at least of reality television. Two years after The Cable Guy, Carrey would star in The Truman Show, a film about a man whose life was not only defined by TV, it was TV. (“It isn't always Shakespeare, but it's genuine. It's a life,” says Ed Harris’ Christof.)

The same year that Ben Stiller released The Cable Guy, Wes Craven made Scream, a slasher horror film about a killer who murders his victims according to “the rules” of other slasher horror films. In one key exchange, Neve Campbell’s Sidney, tells her movie-obsessed boyfriend Billy (Skeet Ulrich) “This is life. This isn't a movie.” To which he slyly replies “Sure it is, Sid. It's all a movie. Life's one great big movie. Only you can’t pick your genre.” 

The line kept spreading to other genres. In Swordfish, John Travolta essentially turned that one line into an entire monologue about the stupidity of Hollywood which, he says “makes s---. Unbelievable, unremarkable s---.” What’s lacking in modern movies (of 2001), he says, is realism.

Yes, that’s right. Swordfish, with Hugh Jackman as a genius computer hacker and John Travolta’s tiny soul patch, presented itself as the solution to Hollywood’s realism problem.

That was over 15 years ago, but this groaner still pops up from time to time. The most recent mainstream example came earlier this month in Logan, a largely satisfying superhero blockbuster about the late-career adventures of Hugh Jackman’s Wolverine. In the film, which is set in a dark future, most of the X-Men are dead and the few who remain live in hiding. A woman finds Wolverine and begs him to help her ferry a young girl named Laura to safety. Though this girl, who turns out to be Logan’s test-tube daughter, has lived her entire life in a laboratory, she was raised reading X-Men comics. The friction between naive children’s entertainment — with its colorful costumes and and an imaginary mutant sanctuary known as Eden — and the cruel reality of the “real world” is the main source of conflict between Logan and Laura.

“Where we’re going, ‘Eden,’  it doesn’t exist. The nurse got it from a comic book. You understand? It’s not real,” Logan tells Laura at one point. These comics can’t be real, he insists, because “in the real world, people die.” But, of course, Eden is real, and Logan and Laura find it, even if within the fictional universe of Logan people do sometimes die.

Logan is a pretty good movie, and its use of this cliché is as close as it gets to forgivable, because it cuts to the core of what the film is about. A few days ago, though, I saw All Nighter, a buddy comedy about a father trying to locate his daughter with the help of her ex-boyfriend. The dad says the line verbatim — “This is not a movie. This is life!” — even though this is a demonstrably silly movie about two guys on a wild chase across Los Angeles.

In cases like that, the net positive of this line is almost always zero. If by chance you’ve managed to make the audience forget they’re watching a movie, “This is not a movie. This is life!” immediately kills the suspension of disbelief. At best, all you’re doing is making the viewer aware of the fictional constructs around the characters, something that’s been done hundreds of times before. (This gag from Top Secret! is now well over 30 years old.)

Back in the days of Top Secret!, long before Travolta strapped on a soul patch and rambled on about Dog Day Afternoon, there were a few genuine chuckles to be had at the sight of a fictional character proclaiming that they lived in the real world. 30 years ago, it still felt clever to tease audiences this way. Today we’re constantly inundated with reminders that reality and fiction have become irreversibly intertwined, not just in movies and television but on cable news and social media. There’s barely a day (or lavish awards ceremony) that goes by that doesn’t feel stranger than fiction. But this is real life. If only it was a movie.

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