I’ve finally realized the problem I have with Joss Whedon’s dialogue: the actors delivering it aren’t very good.
Consider a line from Firefly. Taking one at random: “well, my days of respecting you are quickly coming to a middle” (paraphrasing slightly). I think Nathan Fillion has that line and he just butchers it. Spits it out like he’s getting a prize for delivering it in less than two seconds. It’s a line that looks great on paper but just fell flat for me on screen (am I supposed to believe people talk like this?).
Now consider a line from No Country for Old Men. Taking one at random: “what are we supposed to say? looking for a person who has recently drunk milk?” Tommy Lee Jones’ dry, tired delivery is just so perfect that I want to take it and put it in the veggie drawer of the fridge for later. Holy hell. But if I read that line on a printed page I might not have the same pleasant reaction.
Maybe the problem is that I could never buy Nathan Fillion as a cowboy. He always struck me as one of those people who tells jokes expecting the laugh – their eyes wet with anticipation, the smile that they’re about to share with you already half-formed on their lips. I want to punch those people. Forever. I want that to be my job. What makes a clever line clever, in my eyes anyway, is the straight-facedness with which it’s delivered. If you’re hanging yourself out there, with such desperate vulnerability and the need to be liked, it ruins the pitch. When you say something like, “I swear, by my pretty pink bonnet, I will end you,” you can’t be thinking about how smart you are for coming up with such a witty thing to say.
I think my standards are too high, as 90% of my peer group loves Joss Whedon. So I’m the crank here. All I’m saying is the good actors on that show – Adam Baldwin, and I’m sure another name will come to me in an hour or twelve – carried a lot of weight for the rest of the cast.