This week’s question comes from reader Wade Carney:
The “F-Word” has become so ubiquitous that it’s hard to imagine a time when its use in film and television carried any sort of weight or “shock value.” As Lewis Black once said, for him, ““Fuck” is not a word, it’s a comma.” Even considering the phrase is so common that it’s practically been rendered completely meaningless, though, there are still some incredibly powerful and/or cathartic moments in cinema history that revolve around the use of (or a variant of) the phrase “fuck you.” What are some of your favorite moments in film, television, or music that are anchored on a simple “fuck you,” “fuck off,” “go fuck yourself/yourselves,” or the like?
My favorite “Go fuck yourself” has to be Wolverine’s little cameo in X-Men: First Class. On a mission to bring together as many mutants as they can, Professor X and Magneto decide to converge on Hugh Jackman’s furry superhero in a bar. Wolverine’s response to the two men introducing themselves is actually kind of mild-mannered for a guy who rips people apart on a regular basis, but it’s perfect in this scene. The cameo manages to explain Wolverine’s lack of involvement in First Class in a pithy, hilarious way, while still paying homage to how important the character is to the series. If only The Wolverine had given Jackman more chances to be this much of an asshole.
Trey Parker and Matt Stone’s best jokes are the ones where very little, if anything, is said. They try to use quick phrases to invoke certain feelings, and then riff on those feelings however they want. Which is why you don’t have to remember any of the words of one of the main songs in Team America: World Police aside from the title to get the entire meaning of what the song is all about: “America (Fuck Yeah).” Its message is simple, sung in the tone of every GI Joe cartoon and an Army ad you’ve never seen. Just hearing the lyrics “America… Fuck yeah!” makes me laugh to this day because it’s so over-the-top optimistic, jingoistic, and macho. The funny thing is, I know more than my share of people who probably think Parker and Stone were serious when they wrote it.
It’s hard to celebrate just one strangely off-kilter quote in the immensely quotable Wet Hot American Summer, but David Hyde Pierce’s exclamation of “Oh, fuck my cock!” during the climactic Skylab scene is one of the film’s best. Like many great F-bombs, it’s uttered by an almost absurdly mild-mannered character, and it comes completely out of the blue. Even Pierce must have been amused by it: In the DVD commentary track, co-writer/director David Wain recalls Pierce reporting to the set with a resigned sigh, saying only, “So today’s the day I say, ‘Fuck my cock.’”
Breaking Bad is already a loaded show with lots of murdering and meth—dark stuff. So cursing should be no big deal, yes? After all, someone shot a kid in the face one time. Yet one of the show’s most shocking moments is a purely verbal one. Walter White, the cancer-ridden diabolical protagonist, is a methodical master chemist who thinks he’s in control of every possible situation. He’s done all the thinking and planning, so there’s nothing he can’t handle, no person he can’t control, all from the shadows. At least that’s what he thinks until Skyler, his usually subservient wife, decides to let Walt in on a bit of her own secrecy. “I fucked Ted,” she says to end the third season episode appropriately titled “I.F.T.” It’s not only a fuck you to Walt’s entire calculated existence, but a powerful use of the word “fuck” as a status symbol. She is the one who says it, not Walt. She forces the image into the head of the guy who thinks he has willed himself to have only the thoughts he wants to have. For a brief moment, she is the one who knocks.
Trying to pick just one quotable phrase from Anchorman: The Legend Of Ron Burgundy for discussion is usually an impossible task. Luckily, our reader’s question narrows things down considerably, allowing me to submit “Go fuck yourself, San Diego!” for consideration. It’s not only a funny line in and of itself, but the pivot point in terms of the film’s overall structure, leading Ron from the heights of fame to the depths of despair. The gleeful, oblivious way in which Will Ferrell kisses off Ron’s hometown is the key to its delivery: There are plenty of mean bones in Ron Burgundy, but none are on display when under the studio lights. The contrast between tone and content is one of the film’s best moments, and discussing it now will probably send me into an Anchorman-themed YouTube hole from which I may never escape.
Mine’s pretty recent, but I thought Alan Arkin’s well placed “Argo fuck yourself” in Ben Affleck’s Argo was pretty swell. It rang true to Arkin’s character, to the time period, and became this little catchphrase that only those who had seen the movie really understood. That’s not to say that Argo was that deep or serious a movie, but I liked having knowledge of a dirty phrase that others didn’t for a little bit. Plus, the phrase works even now, out of context and in real life. So, “Argo fuck yourself,” anyone who doesn’t agree with me. Please.
I didn’t realize how filthy some of my favorite films are until I started considering my answer to this question, but it actually didn’t take as long as I’d expected to come up with the perfect response. Coming To America may not be Eddie Murphy’s funniest film, but when it came out on video, my friends and I watched it so many times that we all but memorized it, quickly reaching a point where we would take any possible opportunity to quote from it. You can’t go wrong with Sexual Chocolate, but the barbershop scene was the one that we kept coming back to more often than not, entertaining ourselves by reproducing the argument about the greatest fighter of all time. Beyond that, though, the scene gave us a closing line to any argument that we might find ourselves embroiled in. Of course, it always worked best when there were at least three dissenting opinions, so you could say, “Fuck you, fuck you, and fuck you,” then cheerily add, “Who’s next?”
No one wields a fuck more expertly (or more frequently) than David Mamet, and nowhere does he do it better than his masterpiece, Glengarry Glen Ross. Alec Baldwin’s infamous scene—his only scene—in which he dresses down the film’s already hard-luck salesman sharpens that film’s unforgiving worldview to a sharp point. But the scene comes down to an even sharper point when Ed Harris tries to assert himself by interrupting Baldwin to ask his name. Baldwin, who the film makes into a machine of pure assertiveness, puts Harris in his place like he’s swatting a fly. “Fuck you. That’s my name,” he sneers, and then continues his tirade, so full of contempt for these sad sacks that they don’t deserve to know his name. If Glengarry has a flaw, it’s only that Baldwin’s character—never addressed by name—is listed as “Blake” in the credits, and not simply “Fuck You.”
While Arnold Schwarzenegger has a long list of iconic catchphrases—“I’ll be back,” “Hasta la vista baby,” “Put that cookie down, now!”—one of my favorite moments in his career comes in 1985’s Commando. Hired killer Cooke (Bill Duke) has finally gotten the drop on Schwarzenegger’s John Matrix after a brutal hotel room fight, smugly pointing a revolver and saying, “Fuck you, asshole,” only to have the gun to click on an empty chamber and Matrix to respond with even an even smugger “Fuck you, asshole.” Everything about Commando is over-the-top, tongue-in-cheek ’80s action-movie gloriousness, and that line is one of the high points—taking one of Arnold’s deliberately robotic lines from The Terminator and turning it into a moment that’s begging for a sad-trombone effect. Refreshingly, even Arnold seems to appreciate the spirit of things for once, breaking from his usual flat delivery to offer a raised eyebrow and faint smirk before resuming the fight scene.
Fuuuuuck, man, it’s hard for me to fucking believe that the most famous fucking “fuck” scene in modern fucking television has gone un-fucking-commented upon until now. I am, of fucking course, talking about The Wire’s fucking famous crime scene investigation from “Old Cases.” Let’s be fucking real: The Wire’s reputation as the most fucking important fucking show to ever goddamn fucking exist, combined with its pretty fucking dense language and apparently naturalistic style, can make it ominous as fuck to get into. Like many people, I was like, “What the fuck is this?” until the famous “Fuck scene,” which bashes down that fucking naturalism and makes a pretty clear-as-fuck point: Fucking smart as it is, fucking dense as it is, The Wire is still an entertaining motherfucking TV show.
Since we’re supposed to be keeping this narrow and focused on a single fucking exchange, I think most of the “fuck” scene’s power is in the initial exchange. Bunk’s initial, fucking disgusted and world-weary “Awwww, fuck,” followed by McNulty setting his jaw, and angrily saying, “Mother. Fucker.” Fuck. Yeah. The Wire.
The biggest problem of Breaking Bad’s pretty good, but not amazing, first season is a stacked deck; Vince Gilligan has admitted to trying too hard to make sure Walter White was sympathetic before he turned meth-cooking monster, and that meant an under-developed supporting cast and a narrative that tried a little too hard to justify Mr. White’s choices. This problem was largely resolved in the second season, and one of the big steps forward came in “Peekaboo,” with Walt’s confrontation with Gretchen, his former lover and the wife of a man who appears to have everything Walt thinks he wants. During an increasingly awkward restaurant scene, Walt first begs Gretchen to help cover for him with his wife, and then grows defensive when his usual lies fail to dispel Gretchen’s suspicions. A little glimpse of their shared past comes out: something about Walt blaming Gretchen and her husband Elliott for pushing him out of Gray Matter, a company Walt helped found, although both have very different views on what exactly happened. Astonished at the depth of his anger and denial, Gretchen tells Walt she feels sorry for him; he responds with one of Bryan Cranston’s most venomous line-readings in the entire series. The specific curse, along with the delivery, plays like a psychotic 5-year-old peeking up behind the eyes of a grown man, spitefully burning bridges when he has no real reason to do so, and setting himself on the road that would bring him to Heisenberg.
GoodFellas is one of those movies that tops lists indexing uses of the word fuck in movies. People say fuck a lot. It all adds to the film’s greaseball mobster realism, differentiating it from the more restrained gentility of the mafia families in, say, The Godfather. So in a way, it’s remarkable that any fucks float above the mountain of fucks that accumulate over the course of the film. But the fucks in the “Fuck you, pay me” scene do just that. It’s not just Ray Liotta’s clipped pronunciation, but “Fuck you, pay me” might as well be the motto for organized crime: “Business bad? Fuck you, pay me;” “Oh you had a fire? Fuck you, pay me;” “Place got hit by lightning, huh? FUCK YOU, pay me!”
When the transcripts of the Nixon White House tapes were released to the public, there were plenty of diehard Nixon supporters who were ready to forgive him for any crimes he’d committed, but were shocked and disheartened to learn that he’d used potty language in the Oval Office. In Robert Altman’s one-man political biopic Secret Honor, Philip Baker Hall plays Nixon in exile, holed up in his study telling his “real” story to a tape recorder, for posterity. As he gets increasingly drunk, his monologue gets more and more encrusted with curse words, which come painfully lurching out of him as if they were spasmodic verbal tics; Billy Graham once speculated that, when Nixon cursed in the White House, he must have been possessed by demons, and that’s about what it sounds like. Then at the very end, he has a breakthrough, when he concludes that it’s the American people, who kept voting him into office, and not he himself who bears the guilt for his crimes, and he triumphantly shouts “Fuck ’em!” over and over again, as Altman hops from his image on one video monitor after another.
There’s no shortage of profanity in any of Kevin Smith’s movies; if anything, it’s a massive part of their appeal. But in certain scenes, characters drop an F-bomb (or two) with particular grace and aplomb. That’s the case in Jay And Silent Bob Strike Back, when the pair sing a tune about slinging drugs to the tune of Morris Day & The Time’s ”Jungle Love.” When mocked by some punk-ass kids for these grooves, Jay gets irate: “You don’t know ‘Jungle Love?’ That shit is the mad notes. Written by God Herself and handed down to the greatest band in the world—the motherfucking Time.” His adamant defense of Day and Jerome is charming, especially since Prince receives the lion’s share of the Minneapolis love—and the MF modifier emphasizes just how next level he thinks the band is. Jay saves his swears for things he’s really passionate about—and that, naturally, is flashy pop-funk performed by suave, slick mofos.
Rooted in the casual, teasing banter of pop-music obsessives—and the mental tangents arising from that banter—the film version of High Fidelity plays the grooves out of its original-pressing 7-inch copy of “fuck.” For a movie that’s largely about “fucking” in the verb sense, High Fidelity gets the most mileage out of the word by using it as an adjectival participle, as in, “Is that Peter fucking Frampton,” “Hi Rob—you FUCKING ASSHOLE,” and “WHAT? FUCKING? IAN GUY?” (The characters do a lot of shouting, probably because their hobby involves ruining their hearing.) For these reasons, the use of “fuck” that really sticks with me is the composed, half-shouted one that John Cusack imagines using to shoo ponytailed dilettante/girlfriend-snatcher Tim Robbins out of Championship Vinyl. I’ve always gotten the impression Cusack called an audible mid-delivery; if so, it was a wise decision. On the page, his character was probably supposed to call Robbins’ a “pathetic rebound-fuck.” Instead, he pulls out the hyphen, makes “rebound” and “fuck” into nouns, and claims victory as only a quick-to-anger, sad-bastard like Rob Gordon can: In his head.
I’m a sucker for tongue-in-cheek politeness. So, my favorite F-bomb is from The Rules Of Attraction. The 2002 film, based on Bret Easton Ellis’ novel of the same name, has all sorts of debauchery, including a fuck-laden rant from an irate drug dealer. Yet, the best F-bomb comes from Richard (Russell Sams) defending the nickname Dick—and really his entire lifestyle of sex, smoking, and slackerdom—to his hoity-toity mother. After she dismisses him from a restaurant table for his increasingly erratic behavior, his spirited, “fuck”-filled retort culminates with “And fuck you all very much!” It’s the perfectly “polite” way to bid the haters adieu.
While the first thing that came to mind was Grace Zabriskie’s ghoulish opening to Inland Empire, “Brutal fucking murder!” my favorite has to be The Big Lebowski’s exasperated refrain, “What the fuck are you talking about?” The Dude, Walter, and Donny are constantly asking each other that, whether discussing the politically correct way to refer to an Asian-American asshole, the possibility that the heiress didn’t kidnap herself, or just the Jewish day of rest. The versatility speaks for itself. Not a day goes by that I don’t hear The Dude saying that in my head about some article that I’m reading.
We’ve all wanted to quit a job the way Scarface in Half Baked does when he leaves his fast-food gig: with middle fingers raised to everyone—except those who don’t deserve it. If the dialogue had just been Scarface saying, “Fuck you, fuck you, fuck you, I’m out!” it wouldn’t be nearly as funny, but because he holds backs and delivers a single “You’re cool” to the one person who didn’t deserve his FU (an odd-looking old man, which of course makes the viewer wonder what made him cool to begin with), it’s a great scene. Any job I’ve had that I didn’t like, any social situation I wanted to escape, hell, any bus I’ve been on, I’ve definitely mentally doled out the “fuck you”s and “you’re cool”s as needed.
Fuck is pretty fucking versatile. Though many of its uses have functioned as a rhythmic beat in an expletive-filled kiss-off or been softened for comedic effect, my choice is obvious… because it’s tattooed on my ribs. Though the lyrics to Planes Mistaken For Stars’ “End Me In Richmond” has a couple “fuck”s floating around—from an album titled Fuck With Fire, no less—it’s the moment in the bridge when the music drops out and vocalist Gared O’Donnell offers up the strangely life-affirming lines that end in ”Fuck your standing still” that remain stuck to me. Fucking literally.
Laura M. Browning
For as much as Peter Capaldi’s Malcolm Tucker swears, it would seem that viewers of The Thick Of It would quickly get desensitized to the deluge of F-bombs, C-bombs, and other obscene insults. But Tucker isn’t a director of communications because he’s an aggressively foul-mouthed asshole (though that helps): His swears are creative and beautiful and perfectly delivered (see also: Tucker’s Law). When I was first introduced to this show, I was told it was “the best swearing ever.” What does that even mean? It means that he can deliver a succinct, “fuck”-filled order that still fucking means something: “Come the fuck in, or fuck the fuck off.”
I think we’ve begun to stray from the heart of the question: the elegant simplicity of a well-delivered, “Fuck.” Colorful and high-flying profanity certainly draws attention, but it’s much harder to craft a memorable scene around a subtler bit of swearing. For my money, one of the best is from Alec Baldwin in The Aviator. As Pan Am founder Juan Trippe, Baldwin pops up in Martin Scorsese’s increasingly underrated 2004 Howard Hughes biopic conspiring to force Leo DiCaprio’s psychologically troubled mogul out of the aviation business for good. But Hughes cleans up, finally leaves his hotel room, and kicks ass in a public Senate hearing. Baldwin’s reaction to hearing the tide turn over the radio is as muted his anger has ever been on screen while conveying pools of rage underneath. A simple, punctuating “Fuck!” has rarely been as meaningful.
When I first started cursing liberally in high school, what drew me to bad language was that everything I said would now sound so much cooler—so much more vehement and alive. And it was forbidden, which was doubly awesome. The movies I liked best were the ones that sparkled with coolness, the ones with guns and wit and clever heists: Snatch., Ocean’s Eleven, The Fast And The Furious. (Dennis Farina’s “Shut up and sit down, you big bald fuck” from Snatch. is still one of my favorite lines in the history of badassery.) But I’d have to go with The Boondock Saints for sheer style. The film is sort of an action pic and sort of romantic and wholly memorable; equal parts gritty, urban epic, and gay comedy. David Della Rocca has some of the best F-bombs in the film: “Fuckin’—what the fuckin’. Fuck. Who the fuck fucked this fucking… How did you two fucking fucks… Fuck!” But my personal favorite is from Norman Reedus’ Murphy, who tells his brother: “All right. Get your stupid fuckin’ rope.” It’s perfectly deadpan, both cutting and hilarious, and I use it ad nauseum in totally inappropriate contexts because Reedus’ delivery is so good. Needless to say, a good fuck is about delivery.
I got your well-delivered “Fuck!” right here, Kevin: The 1986 horror movie Critters is a pretty dire, low-budget creature feature, one of a zillion such to pop up in the wake of Joe Dante’s hugely successful Gremlins in 1984. It features a group of malevolent little aliens terrorizing a Kansas farm family, mostly by rolling around in the form of fuzzy, featureless puffballs that occasionally open up to reveal toothy, stiff puppets. It’s sort of meant to be a comedy, but the only really comedic moment that worked for me comes when two of the critters, having never before indicated they can talk, turn to each other and speak in alien gibberish, with subtitles: “They have weapons.” “So what?” Cue the shotgun blast that kills the cavalier one; the other one blurts, “Fuck!” and flees. It’s all so unexpected, from the use of language to the abrupt catharsis of monster-death to the profanity. In the middle of a bog-standard cheapie horror movie, the bluntness and the comic timing of those few seconds always stuck with me. If the rest of the movie had been that fast-paced and left field, I would remember more about it than that one scene.