In a world… where female writers are scarce and female writer/directors even more so, Lake Bell has done both with panache in her feature debut, “In A World…” That the film itself is a meta-commentary on the persistent and open sexism in Hollywood is even more impressive. It also doesn’t hurt that it’s funny to boot.
“In A World…” takes place within the cottage industry of voice over artists in Hollywood, with Bell starring as Carol Solomon, the daughter of Sam Sotto (Fred Melamed), a legendary voice over artist. All of the artists live in the shadow of Don La Fontaine, as evidenced by the opening credits faux newsreel about his death. An aspiring voice over artist herself, Carol makes a living as an accent and vocal coach, though she longs for the big leagues. While Sam cares about Carol, he’s also egotistical and selfish, and doesn’t hold back about telling her that the industry isn’t ready for a female sound, and he doesn’t hesitate to kick her out of the house so his Midwestern chippie girlfriend (Alexandra Holden) can move in.
Carol lands on the couch of her sister Dani (Michaela Watkins) and brother-in-law Moe (Rob Corddry) and continues to plug away at the local sound studio, coaxing Eva Longoria (as herself) through the tricky vowels of a Cockney accent. The studio staff and engineers, headed up by Louis (Demetri Martin), Cher (Tig Notaro), and Nick Offerman in a sequined fedora, can’t stand the pompous upstart Gustav Warner (Ken Marino doing his best sleazeball, which is the gold standard of sleazeball) and are only so happy to have Carol record his temp track for a trailer voice over, which allows her to snag the gig.
From there on, it’s a series of mishaps and misunderstandings, as Carol is seduced by Gustav at a party, without his knowing that she’s the “broad” who stole his gigs, or that she’s the daughter of his sauna buddy Sam, who has anointed him as his heir apparent. When the opportunity to resurrect the phrase “in a world…” for the trailer of “The Amazon Games” (a perfect send up of the multi-part post-apocalyptic fantasy series) comes up, it’s an all-out war between Carol, Sam and Gustav for the job.
Bell is winning as the hapless but determined Carol, her physical comedy skills a gift in a performance that is almost entirely lacking in vanity (her wardrobe of baby doll dresses and overalls is amazing). She has real familial chemistry with both Watkins and Corddy, and finds a loving and authentic father-daughter tension with Melamed, who is excellent. As the sort of dueling love interests, Marino and Martin sort of just play themselves, not really stretching outside of their respective and well-worn wheelhouses, though Marino is allowed to be much smarter than his boneheaded beefcakes usually are, and it’s nice to see him stretch in a more cunning role.
While the film is hysterical, its real strength lies in the way it is able to deal with an issue like sexism in the industry and work it out in a funny, honest and very real way. There’s an interesting moment at the end of the film, where Geena Davis tells Carol why she was chosen for the ‘Amazon Games’ gig. While we’re used to Hollywood telling us that everything is a meritocracy and the person who does the best wins, Davis simply lays out that Carol was chosen because she’s a woman, and her voice on that trailer will be more powerful than anything else the pseudo-feminist ‘Amazon Games’ could tell little girls. It’s a refreshing acknowledgement of the inequalities that do exist in the world and that sometimes we need to give someone an extra boost because they don’t have it as easy as the others do.
It’s also an interesting film in the way that it deals with the female voice, so often a complicated presence in cinema, a force that both denies and disciplines its power. A minor subplot about Carol’s imitations of the Kardashian-esque Valley girl twang that has infected our young female population is funny, sure, but it’s more than that. She organizes a vocal coaching school for these young lasses, and decidedly says that instead of sounding like asking questions, they should make a statement. It’s a powerful note to end on, and a strong statement that Bell manages to do with her film. Here’s to looking for more from her. [A-]