‘Stick with the accents. Voiceover is a man’s world.’
That’s what voiceover legend, Sam Sotto (Fred Melamed), says to his daughter, Carol (Lake Bell) as she struggles to break through into the rarefied upper levels of their industry. Carol is an endearingly ragged collection of sloth, insecurity, determination, talent, and initiative. She is a human being, in other words, and her viewpoint is the one the movie grants us as a window into the voiceover world. This is a world that, though perhaps superficially unfamiliar, turns out to act almost as a microcosm of the one we know. We find out, for example, that it follows one of the (sometimes spoken, sometimes unspoken) unfortunate rules of the world at large: Women who strive for success are to be tolerated at best, but not overly indulged. Let them proceed to a certain level, but anything exceeding that should be treated either with contempt or outright hostility. With In a World, Lake Bell wants to zoom into the granular detail of the voiceover industry to show us yet another manifestation of an inequitable system.
Any movie seeking to shine a light on injustice is a movie worth celebrating. Any movie wishing to bring a worthwhile message to a wider audience is something to grab hold onto. A movie that manages to do this while telling a good story is one to be very happy about indeed. Sometimes, in the urgency of the moment and the righteousness of the cause, it can be easy to forget about a worthwhile story and actual, true characters. Lake Bell, who aside from playing Carol also wrote and directed In a World, does not fall prey to this. The message and the movie work together, rather than in spite of each other.
Not everything works perfectly. In a healthy sign of ambition, Bell includes a substantial sub-plot about Carol’s sister, Dani (Michaela Watkins) and her husband, Moe (Rob Corddry). They are going through a certain stage of passive aggressive marital ennui, and a certain bubbling over is inevitable. The scenes featuring Dani and Moe are well written, very well performed, and emotionally true, but the stitching isn’t exactly seamless. Though by no means a deal breaker, in an ideal world the tonal shifts between the main plot and this one would be managed better. It is a credit to Bell, however — and an indicator of her interest in the human side of things — that she tells this story at all. Both plots are trying to balance pathos and humour; one simply has more of the former, and vice versa. There is nothing inherently wrong with that, it just makes for an occasionally jarring experience, though not an unpleasant one. It is gratifying to see someone attempting to tackle a spectrum of human experience in a modern American comedy.
Bell’s ambition can also be seen in the machinations of the main plot. Carol’s quest to rise in the male-dominated currents of her industry features not only a successful, intimidating father figure, but also a case of mistaken identity, a workplace romance, an interesting new addition to the family, and a brief sexual sojourn with ‘the next big thing’ in voiceovers (a misogynist blowhard played with appropriate sleaze by Ken Marino). The entire thing is set in motion by the looming possibility that the industry may soon be looking for someone to fill the giant boots of Don LaFontaine — the insanely iconic and prolific (over 5,000 trailers and countless other promos under his belt) real-world voiceover artist. LaFontaine became so closely tied to the eponymous phrase that it was in effect retired when he passed. The jockeying for position of the main players in In a World is the consequence of a movie studio announcing its intention to bring the phrase back, and thus in effect to pass on the gilded crown.
The movie asks a lot of questions of us. Or rather it asks us to ask questions — to interrogate our assumptions and preconceptions about a powerful but largely invisible presence in our lives. Voiceovers are everywhere. More often than not they take the form of a booming, bassy male narration. But this isn’t one of Newton’s Laws of Thermodynamics — there is no inherent reason why this should be the default state of affairs, and Lake Bell should be applauded for tackling the issue with wit and charm. Her screenwriting award for the movie at Sundance was well deserved.
As far as visuals go, the movie doesn’t break away too much from the predilection of most modern American comedies to film actors just reacting to each other in a series of close and medium shots, often sacrificing camerawork for room for verbal improvisation. The camera isn’t used particularly inventively — shots are logically enough framed without ever really adding anything unexpected or innovative. Luckily the actors that Bell chose to film acting and reacting are well on top of their game. Nick Offerman, Tig Notaro, and Demetri Martin round out the ensemble already mentioned and they all do excellent work — especially Martin who gets a little bit more to work with than the others. Of special note is Geena Davis, who shows up briefly to deliver a hell of a line — a real gut-punch that serves both to provide shades of grey to the film while also reinforcing it.
In a World is funny, affecting, and important without being ponderous. Lake Bell has shown promise as a writer-director and it’ll be interesting to see what else she can cook up in the future.