There are brilliant lines of dialog spoken by fools, there are brilliantly foolish lines of comedic dialog and there are bad lines of dialog that can’t be saved by any character or actor. And then there are the rare lines that sound nonsensical or surreal but barrel through those categories and somehow arrive at their meaning, comic or emotional, despite the semantic shortcomings.
Arguably the most famous nonsense line of this kind is spoken by Danny DeVito in the David Mamet joint Heist. DeVito’s would-be mastermind is having a heated flip-phone conversation with a reluctant jewel thief played by Gene Hackman. Incredulous that Hackman won’t take another job because he doesn’t need the money, DeVito spits this bon mot: “Everybody needs money! That’s why they call it money!” Roger Ebert declared it the funniest line David Mamet ever wrote, and then had to explain himself in no less than two Answer Man columns. The best defense he offered to baffled readers was a much less opaque quote from Louis Armstrong – “There are some folks that, if they don’t know, you can’t tell ’em.”
I’m “some folks” in this case, feeling more needled than tickled by DeVito’s tautology here, even delivered with his patented overclocked-demon urgency. But I can understand how the line reveals something about DeVito’s character and how he operates from a loop of reasoning where the desire for more money is so closely aligned with need, that need becomes absorbed into the word’s very definition. The need for money is so self-evident, it evinces itself. (Dissecting nonsense lines sometimes just makes them multiply, like worms. For a much deeper look at the function of Heist‘s dialog, see C.M. Crockford’s Year of the Month on Heist.)
Maybe it’s something with Gene Hackman movies. Hackman himself delivers my all-time favorite nonsense line in the grimy Arthur Penn neo-noir Night Moves (written by Alan Sharp). Hackman’s morose private detective Harry is watching football when his wife returns home and asks who’s winning. “Nobody,” Harry sedately informs her. “One side is just losing slower than the other.”
Now here’s an illogical uttering I can get behind. Maybe in the most forward-thinking view one could consider the football teams both destined for loss at some point, either in this game or another. Or he could be pointing as far ahead as the distant but inevitable loss of the very lives and memory of all the players, although I don’t think that would be confined to just one side of the contest. According to the conventional rules of sports, likely the intended context for the question, there’s an easy measure for discerning which team is winning at any particular moment. But Harry’s description of the game as containing losing two teams says a lot about his state of mind and how the past will inform his approach in the rest of the movie. He’s no stranger to competitions with no winners (and the wife asking him the question is cheating on him, so he’s not in a great mood).
Your turn Soluters: What are your favorite Nonsense Lines that Make Sense? Not wisdom from the mouths of fools, but lines that don’t hold any water and yet deliver their meaning anyway.