In a World is a playful, confident comedy about movie trailer voice-overs and the inherent misogyny in the entertainment industry. While the anger is never constant, there’s the sense that writer/director/star Lake Bell was inspired by her frustration. Hollywood celebrates men who can do it all – as filmmakers, George Clooney and Ben Affleck are the toast of the town – yet Bell must eke her through a system where old men ignorantly flaunt their privilege. Frustration may inform In a World, but her movie moves at a pleasant clip because she has the wherewithal to hire several gifted comic actors. Terrific one-liners pepper the script even when the plot veers toward formula.
Carol (Bell) is a struggling voice coach who lives with her father Sam (Fred Melamed). Sam is the top voice-over man in the movies – he took over after the death of real-life voice-over actor Don Lafontaine – and the only thing bigger than his baritone is his ego. He kicks Carol out of the house so he can live with his young girlfriend Jamie (Alexandra Holden), and Carol moves with in her sister Dani (Michaela Watkins) and her husband Moe (Rob Corddry). Carol gets some freelance work from Louis (Demetri Martin): Eva Longoria just finished a British gangster movie, so Carol steps to help Longoria redo her lines. Louis needs a last minute replacement for a voice-over since the new hotshot Gustav (Ken Marino) gets sick, and Carol steps in. The studio loves Carol’s work, naturally, and she rises through the ranks of the voice-over community (unbeknownst to Sam and Gustav).
All the jokes In a World are driven by character, not by elaborate set-pieces. Sometimes the jokes are transparent – Sam asks Carol to do a line from Star Wars with a Russian accent – but most occur when the characters gently mock each other. There is a terrific sub-plot where Carol runs into a woman who speaks like a “sexy baby,” and she reacts with a deadpan impression. One of the best things about In a World is how it contrasts Carol’s with ethic with her male counterparts. Voices genuinely interest her (she always has a tape recorder handy whenever she hears a weird accent), and while she’s lucky for her new-found success, she was also prepared for it. This is stark contrast to Sam and Gustav, who do little more than sit in a sauna (there is a running gag that Sam is a sex symbol in spite of his hairy, overweight body). Tensions build between Carol and the other voice-over actors when the industry announces it’s ready to bring back the phrase “In a world” to their next big franchise, and all them recognize it as a huge opportunity.
Aside from the cut-throat world of voiceovers, In a World includes many romantic sub-plots. Moe and Dani’s marriage has fallen into routine, and they’re both challenged by the opposite sex. He has a sexy neighbor who stops in to ask if she can use her shower; she has a client who flirts with her shamelessly. Bell follows this sub-plot careful attention, including a scene of genuine heartbreak, and it’s a welcome alternative from the voice-over kookiness. Bell expresses interest in all her character’s lives, and she handles this domestic diversion with tact and sensitivity.
Then there’s the business of Carol and her relationships. First there’s Gustav – he notices her because she’s wearing a hot red dress as opposed to her usual overalls, and Bell’s subsequent handling of character misinformation is Shakespearean – and it’s funny because it feeds into Sam and Gustav’s insecure condescension. Sam’s disapproval of Carol is so pervasive that he handles her triumph like he’s a child; Melamed’s performance works since he makes no apologies even when his character is an asshole. Demetri Martin’s Louis also tries to court Carol, and he’s so paralyzed with fear that Carol has to do all the heavy lifting. Martin does not quite have the chops to pull it off, yet there’s a passionate monologue that romantic because it’s about Bell’s work, and not necessarily his feelings for her.
In comparison to Gustav and Sam, Carol relies on a support network. The three voice-over actors compete directly with each other, and in a thrilling montage, Bell splices between their auditions for one silly mash-up. Gustav and Sam perform with minimum help, while Carol records with Louis and other audio specialists (Nick Offerman and Tig Notaro, who steal every scene they’re in). Bell makes an institutional argument here: there is such inequality in the industry system that an up-and-comer must work that much harder because there is bias against the established men. The climax for In a World strikes an interesting balance between triumph and failure, and it’s foreshadowed by a perfect cameo. As with the rest of her debut, Bell has the right instincts when she lets her actors slip into their roles with relaxed comfort. This is not the work of a lazy director who relies on her actors, but a smart director who trusts them.