Usually one of the worst insults you could lob at a comedy is that it has a broad appeal. The most interesting comedies are the ones that tend to be hyper-specific, focused on an insular world of some kind (think ’70s newsrooms in “Anchorman” or ’80s summer camp in “Wet Hot American Summer”), while the ones pitched to the widest audience end up having storylines like “Hardworking ad executive can’t seem to get her love life together!” Just ask Judd Apatow who learned on “Freaks & Geeks” that the more specific something is, the more it tends to resonate. So either actress Lake Bell knew this instinctively or it was just dumb luck that she chose to set her feature debut as writer/director (she also stars) in the world of voiceover artists. As an actress, Bell has been working steadily for a while now but it wasn’t until she fell in with the “Children’s Hospital” gang that she really seemed to be at home. The absurdist Adult Swim comedy has featured a wide array of comic talent in front of and behind the camera and the experience has really rubbed off on her first film, which is populated with many of her co-stars from the show.
“In A World…” opens with a newsreel clip about the legacy and passing of the real-life king of voiceovers, Don LaFontaine. Responsible for the narration for over 750,000 television spots and 5,000 movie trailers, LaFontaine was the man who supposedly coined the phrase “In a world…” that would open countless film spots. The movie then weaves in new footage of peer Sam Sotto (“A Serious Man” star Fred Melamed), and up-and-comer Gustav Warner (“Children’s Hospital” co-star Ken Marino). Carol Sotto (Bell) is Sam’s daughter, a tomboy-ish vocal coach who specializes in accents but dreams of being a voiceover artist herself. From early on, she’s been told by her father that female voices are not what the public wants to hear in their trailers but he ups the unsupportive ante early on by saying that she can no longer live with him. (“I’m going to support you by not supporting you.”) Carol is 31 years old but she’s clearly in a state of arrested development, wearing t-shirts and hoodies and compulsively recording anyone around her that has an interesting accent she may be able to use for her library. Since she can’t quite support herself on vocal coaching alone she is forced to move in with her sister Dani (Michaela Watkins) and her husband Moe (Rob Corddry).
Audio engineer Louis (Demetri Martin) recruits Carol to record a temp vocal track for a new quadrilogy of blockbuster films called “The Amazon Games” (a “Hunger Games“-ish sci-fi epic) and she suddenly finds herself in demand for a whole string of voiceover jobs. Now she’s been positioned as legitimate competition against her father and Gustav, who don’t know that she’s the hot new voice snatching up their jobs. The voiceover work itself then recedes into the background of the picture as a series of misunderstandings, jealousies and betrayals take center stage. While the romances and misunderstandings are a little sitcom-y, Bell’s direction is much more naturalistic and the performances are solid all around with additional supporting work from “Parks And Recreation” star Nick Offerman, newcomer Stephanie Allynne (who’s wonderful as a spacey receptionist) and a cameo by Geena Davis(!). Bell is endearing as a lead actress but directs herself unselfconsciously, giving her character lines that belie her natural beauty. After donning a dress for a night out she’s told by her date, “You look like someone else,” to which she responds cheerfully, “Thanks.”
Comedian Demetri Martin is charming as the tongue-tied engineer who has a crush on her and both Melamed and Marino are delightfully convincing as ego-centric voiceover stars. The script (also by Bell) is a low-key charmer though it does have some tonal issues bridging more serious marital issues between Dani and Moe with some of the sillier stuff. Though not as consistently funny as one might hope, “In A World…” is still an endearing comedy and a promising debut for now-triple threat Lake Bell. [B]