In which I take a break from other projects to review a pretty enjoyable summer movie

I always liked Lake Bell’s Sally Heep to James Spader’s Alan Shore on Boston Legal; her version of endearingly neurotic is clearly in my wheelhouse. So I was happy to review Bell’s writing and directing debut, In a World, for Pop Matters. I’ve posted the original version of my review below.

In a World graphic (1)

In a World…, Lake Bell’s writing and directing debut

There’s an interesting moment in Lake Bell’s In a World… where a female film executive tells Bell’s character that she’s hired her not because she’s the best person for the job, but because she’s using her to send a powerful feminist message. I am happy to report that the movie Bell has made, which has a feminist backbone of its own, doesn’t feel like it’s made a similar compromise.

Bell, whose unusual features can skew comically neurotic or leading-lady beautiful depending on her whim, plays Carol Solomon, a slightly dorky thirty-something who is most at home scrutinizing the timbre of the various accents she’s acquired for her “vocal archive” and dreams of doing the voice-overs for movie trailers. (The film takes its title, of course, from those iconic opening words of many a trailer.) However, when the movie begins, Carol is barely making ends meet by doing the occasional Sunny D commercial and coaching actors who can’t quite master the accent a given role requires (in a funny bit early on, Eva Longoria makes a cameo appearance trying to spit out a ridiculous line in South London dialect).

On the other hand, Carol’s father, Sam, a doughy, self-important basso profundo played by real-life voice actor Fred Melamed, is enough of a legend in the voice-over industry that he’s up for a lifetime achievement award at the Golden Trailers. Unfortunately, her father’s stance in the industry is of no use to Carol. Just before displacing her from the cluttered family bungalow to make room for his even younger girlfriend (Alexandra Holden), whom Carol refers to as “the groupie,” he matter-of-factly reminds her that the voice of the movie trailer is just categorically male and tells her to keep working on those funny accents she does. Meanwhile, Sam does a lot of male-bonding in the steam room with the industry’s other big voice-over actor, a smarmy golden boy named Gustav Warner (Ken Marino) who is expected to eventually inherit Sam’s mantle.

Bell has set the film in one of Hollywood’s insular niches, populated not by TMZ headliners but instead by the paunchy, aging males of the voice-over industry and a complement of socially awkward recording engineers. (Demetri Martin, clad in a hoody and track pants most of the time, plays the sweetly self-effacing head of the sound-recording studio where Carol freelances and he nurses his crush on her.) Establishing shots show us the smoggy skies and industrial buildings of a more working-class side of Hollywood, where most people live in cramped apartments and movies are discussed only in terms of their trailers — the prime real estate for voice-over stars.

Within this idiosyncratic locale, the plot takes off when Carol, serendipitously filling in for Gustav, nails a trailer voice-over and is subsequently tapped to voice the trailers for an epic quadrilogy that’s made out to be something on the level of The Hunger Games crossed with The Lord of the Rings, except with Amazons. Her father, apparently unable to stand the idea of being outdone by “a freshman vocal” like his daughter, demands an audition of his own, and the film takes a momentary Rocky-like turn as we’re treated to a training montage of Carol, her father, and now Gustav, who are all competing to be the voice of the quadrilogy’s trailers.

Yet despite a story that pivots on a woman breaking into a male-dominated industry (even taking on her father to do so), In a World… neither preaches to us nor mocks its heroine. Perhaps its greatest feat is that the movie remains throughout a mellow, endearing comedy that happens to center on a female protagonist who isn’t trying to get the guy, have a baby, or plan a wedding. Some lines zing and others fall flat, and some of its storylines are resolved a bit too seamlessly, but it makes its points by being funny. And this may be because its humor is more sympathetic than merciless. Even some of its most ridiculous characters, for instance, have more than one dimension: the relationship between Carol’s fleshy father and his “groupie” girlfriend (whom Carol derides for having “an unironic Midwestern accent” and “smelling like Lifesavers”) is not without its sweet moments. Nor does Carol’s relationship with her older sister (played with integrity by Michaela Watkins) rely on drawing overtly formulaic contrasts between the two women; instead, the gently humorous dynamic between the sisters adds dimension to Carol’s history and personality without making either sibling a caricature.

Bell herself, using her elastic features to her advantage, makes Carol as she’s made her film: as sympathetic as she is funny. She is consistently enjoyable as a woman whose fashion sense seems stalled at the height of the Grunge era and who stealthily tape records people’s accents no matter where she happens to be. (A so-so subplot involving Carol’s sister and her brother-in-law (Rob Corddry) is both incited and conveniently resolved by Carol’s tape-recording habit.) Significantly, the plot does not concern itself with transforming Carol (and rest assured, she also avoids the manic pixie dream girl trope of transforming others). Instead, the movie tracks Carol’s course through an industry she loves and leaves her unkempt raspberry DIY highlights and faded flannel dresses just as they are. There may be a feminist message in that, but it’s also pretty good comedy.

Director: Lake Bell
Cast: Lake Bell, Fred Melamed, Demetri Martin, Ken Marino
Studio: Team G
Year: 2013
Rated: R
US date: 2013-08-09 (Limited release)

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