REVIEW: In a World … [2013]

Score: 8/10 | ★ ★ ★

Rating: R | Runtime: 93 minutes | Release Date: August 9th, 2013 (US)
Studio: Roadside Attractions
Director(s): Lake Bell
Writer(s): Lake Bell

“The whole thing’s based on the Prussian War”

I remember seeing Lake Bell for the first time on the criminally underrated HBO show “How to Make It in America” and thinking, “this is a real person.” She was slightly awkward, somewhat unconventionally attractive, and far from the ditzy, interchangeably dull girls mainstream entertainment loves to shove down our throats ad nauseum. Bell’s Rachel was headstrong, successful, charmingly flakey, and ultimately the kind of woman you’d believe could find herself at the center of a love triangle. What I couldn’t have guessed then was just how talented she’d prove—something her debut film as writer/director/star In a World … definitely shows. A comedy with its fair share of quirky characters and goofy situations, it possesses a relevant message about female empowerment and the part women play in perpetuating the gender inequality problem.

At its core is a remnant of chauvinistic machismo Hollywood still holds tight: the blockbuster movie trailer’s masculine voiceover. The legendary Don LaFontaine made a career uttering overwrought phrases in his deep, hypnotizing voice to enchant us with the mysterious desire to see whatever he was selling. Pouncing on this sexist phenomenon, Bell has crafted a tale featuring a female speech/dialect coach named Carol who’s looking to follow her father Sam Soto’s (Fred Melamed) footsteps into the biz. A fictional contemporary of LaFontaine as well as his opportunistic replacement upon death, this melding of personal and professional conflict in an old school versus new/father versus daughter competition to become the new voice of the epic “In a world …” rebirth heightens the drama by also making it ripe for comedic fodder.

Completely wrapped up in archaic tradition and self-adulation, Soto can’t begin to think his daughter could contend because this type of vocal work was a man’s job, pure and simple. This is why he decides to put his weight behind the next generation version of himself, Gustav (Ken Marino), after bowing out of the running. He already has the money, the more than half his age girlfriend (Alexandra Holden’s Jamie), and the fame soon to be validated with a lifetime achievement award—happiness therefore comes with the assurance that his legacy lives on in a deep baritone. Known for disappointing his daughters (Michaela Watkins’ hotel concierge Dani being the other), Carol may still be hurt but not surprised when he suggests she stick to accents, barely listening to anything she says in return.

But everything changes through a favor for sound guys Louis (Demetri Martin) and Heners (Nick Offerman) while teaching a self-deprecating Eva Longoria how to speak Cockney in studio. Gustav is a no-show to record an adolescent rom/com advertisement and Carol jumps at the chance to prove her worth. A serendipitous track finding its way into studio ears—likely thanks to Louis’ obvious crush on her—interviews and bookings start showering down upon her. Comedy tropes galore arrive as Sam and Gustav bad-mouth this unknown “female poacher” while Carol unwittingly continues her awkward, out-of-place shtick into the latter’s bed. Rather than have Sam support her once he discovers she’s the thief, though, his Father of the Year acts defensive, cheated, and greedy with a decision to do whatever he can to stop her.

While this is the main plot—culminating in a concise critique by Geena Davis’ executive producer on the industry’s overflowing catalog of “heroine” vehicles really just being exploitations of the female gender as objectified badasses in tight-fitting clothes—it’s actually everything else that grabs our attention. It’s Bell’s first screenplay, though, so we can forgive her for letting its backbone fall prey to cliché and generic story progression. After all, she does find a way to add a few surprises through the subversion of stereotypes by expertly evolving them into real characters. Better still, when someone like Holden’s Jamie receives the opportunity to prove she’s more than a trophy wife, Bell does it behind closed doors to highlight her genuine strength without melodramatic, reactionary posturing on behalf of those guilty for their lazy assumptions.

This is but one example of a periphery player getting quality time to shine with a meaty subplot involving sister Dani and her husband Moe (Rob Corddry) letting sexual desire for Jason O’Mara’s Mr. Puncer and Talulah Riley’s Pippa respectively get the better of them; fun over-the-top zaniness from Offerman and coworkers Cher (Tig Notaro) and Nancy (Stephanie Allynne); and the boarish bigotry of Melamed and Marino going for broke with their famously rich voices. There is a lot going on and yet Bell seems to handle the balancing act like a pro, giving us just the right amount of time with each and not feeling the need for her own character to be there when they do. In a World … creates a rich world around its star with both emotion and humor.

The highlight for me—besides an on-going joke about the vapidity of “modern” women cultivating images as annoying as they are unemployable courtesy of reality television—is the sweet floundering of attraction between Bell and Martin. The former plays shyly modest when told she’s a catch and the latter gets bogged down by neuroses keeping him at an arm’s length. Watching their will they/won’t they courtship is a perfect contrast of subtlety to offset the more blatant, competitive smarm happening on behalf of Sam and Gustav. The plotting may not be fresh or unique design-wise, but Bell’s playing with gender roles to show the woman as adulterer and men as catty gossips is. Pair that ambition with her solid visual style and confident ensemble and you get a highly entertaining debut from a rising talent.

[1] Lake Bell stars in IN A WORLD… Photo credit: Seamus Tierney
[2] Alexandra Holden (left), Lake Bell (middle) and Fred Melamed (right) star in IN A WORLD… Photo credit: Bonnie Osborne
[3] Demetri Martin stars in IN A WORLD… Photo credit: Bonnie Osborne

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