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They’re not really characters, but mouthpieces delivering on-the-nose lines—“The only man I let walk all over me is you,” Emily says—leaving Dynevor and Ehrenreich, both capable actors, lost in their roles. From an article in the Atlantic

I've found nothing useful to explain on-the-nose lines from dictionaries. I would like to figure it out. How could it be about the nose?

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    “Get it through”? Maybe “figure it out”? Or “make heads or tails of it”? Oct 12, 2023 at 10:18
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    Merriam-Webster defines the phrase on the nose. Does that help? Oct 12, 2023 at 10:21
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    'Accurately' seems to work here. But in this case, I'm struggling to understand the meaning of lines following the on the nose.
    – Jones
    Oct 12, 2023 at 10:27
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    @PaulTanenbaum: I think you read too much into that line. Imho the article writer just thinks it's a "powerful, emotive" line ("on-the-nose", accurately describing her attitude to men in general and him in particular). BUT the writer thinks although the script is chock-full of such "memorable" lines, the actual storyline is sloppily and unconvincingly portrayed, so even though the two lead actors are highly competent, there's not much they can do with such a poor quality script. Oct 12, 2023 at 10:43
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    Related question from EL&U
    – dan04
    Oct 12, 2023 at 19:53

1 Answer 1

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As noted in the comments, the expression is defined as "accurate, on target". But that doesn't convey enough of what it means in this context.

It's a pejorative expression when it comes to the dialogue in a movie. It means that the sentiments are expressed with implausible aptness or pithiness. The dialogue is stereotypical; it too perfectly fits the genre (the "target"). This makes it unsubtle and unrealistic. Hence, the characters are "not really characters", but tropes — and in this case no more than "mouthpieces" for a screenwriter who is, presumably, too clever by half.


Another sense that is not intended in this context is when one explicitly calls someone out for something that it's a faux pas to name, or directs an insult at them that hits too close to home, i.e. to a sore spot. The receiver of the remark might then say:

That was a little on-the-nose!

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    I think you're exactly right, and "implausible aptness or pithiness" is itself on the nose, on the button (you've hit the nail on the head with those words). I don't use on the nose myself (too close by winning by a nose = by a narrow margin), so I looked at is right on the nose and is right on the button in NGrams. They're now about equally common in AmE, with the "nose" version on the ascendant, but that version is too uncommon to even show in the chart with the BrE corpus. For your final context, Brits say That was a little near the mark! Oct 12, 2023 at 13:19
  • My understanding is it refers not to dialogue that's too apt or pithy but to characters who always say exactly what they're thinking in the most direct manner. "That makes me angry!" is a stereotypical example. A character should show their anger, not announce it. Oct 13, 2023 at 1:12
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    @KefSchecter While that's a possible definition (and closer to the second part of my answer), I don't think that's what's meant in the context of the article. That fault doesn't make characters into mouthpieces for the screenwriter. Oct 13, 2023 at 2:45

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