Compared to the apocalyptic fallout on display in so many movies this summer, the stakes in In a World… are pretty low: it’s about a struggling Los Angeles vocal coach looking to raise her pay grade a few notches by recording the narrations for Hollywood movie trailers. But Lake Bell’s debut feature is rife with subtext about the need for women to make themselves heard at every level of the entertainment industry. Taking on the quadruple-threat role of writer-director-producer-star, Bell summons up a rich creative voice and projects it at just the right volume. Everything in this cheerful, concise comedy rings out loud and clear.
A capable physical comedienne with a deep cache of alt-humour cred (she’s one of the stars of the cult cable hit Children’s Hospital) Bell has often been the best thing about otherwise dismal movies: the secondary love interest (It’s Complicated) or the kooky boss (No Strings Attached). This time out, she’s taken the initiative of writing herself a strong lead role. Her Carol Solomon is a relatable underachiever who thankfully never shades into a shambling rom-com caricature. In a series of short, precise strokes, Bell shows us that Carol’s main obstacle is not a lack of confidence or talent, but rather a long-suffering understanding of her chosen profession. Voice-over, it seems, is a man’s game – a fact emphasized by the constant crowing of Carol’s father, Sam (Fred Melamed), a savvy veteran who has ascended to the top of the food chain.
Then there’s Gustav (Ken Marino), a self-styled heir to the voice-over throne who has taken Sam as his mentor. (Marino, who has got to be one of the most consistently hilarious supporting actors in American movies, adds another shifty rogue to his gallery.) Sam and Gustav are both angling for a gig narrating the trailer for the much-hyped “Amazon Games” quadrilogy – a thinly veiled Hunger Games spoof – but Carol’s gender makes her a stronger contender. It’s one of the script’s many subtly clever points that it takes the promotion of a distaff-themed blockbuster to bring out the heroine’s inner Amazon.
With so many talented comedians on hand (including Rob Corddry, Michaela Watkins and Parks and Recreation MVP Nick Offerman), it follows that In a World… is a movie that’s funny around the edges. The little throwaway lines at the ends of scenes are better than the punchlines in most mainstream movies. But what really makes Bell’s film special is its wholesale rejection of the exhausting hostility that has turned many recent comedies into claustrophobic endurance tests.
This doesn’t mean that the movie is innocuous or that its characters lack edge. Most of the humour derives from professional arrogance and petty competitiveness. The difference is that Bell tries her best to keep us invested in even her crankiest characters’ aspirations and emotions. Melamed’s smartly shaded performance is a case in point: Sam’s monstrous self-absorption is a believable defence mechanism for a man who has made his fortune on the showbiz margins. Elsewhere, a subplot about the marital problems of Carol’s sister (Watkins) and her husband (Corddry) is more emotionally raw than one might expect – it’s like a superior, miniaturized version of This is 40 minus the endless bad improv.
Ultimately, though, In a World… belongs to Carol, and to Bell, who uses the role to show off her gifts for mimicry and accents (from Cockney to Russian to Valley Girl) while retaining the self-effacing beauty of a vintage screwball heroine. (She even busts out a passable karaoke version of Ice Cube’s classic SoCal anthem It Was a Good Day). Carol’s combination of ambition, humility and finesse makes her a warrior-woman worth rooting for.