On paper, a career in the movie trailer voiceover business doesn’t suggest much by way of glamor, and in truth, In a World…, the feature directing, writing, and producing debut of the multifaceted Lake Bell, doesn’t little to shake that perception. Instead, Bell’s film builds a lived-in and authentic world where people ruthlessly vie for coveted gigs which appear so minor from a distance that their ability to inspire cutthroat competition is almost puzzling; it also happens to absurdly engaging and very, very funny, but the punchlines feel natural, unfussy, and not at all dependent on getting the audience to laugh at the misery and humiliation of the characters on screen.
Maybe that makes me sound like a Care Bear. Believe me when I say I’m not. Comedy allows a wide berth for jokes fueled by abuse, but every now and again we deserve an organic guffaw that doesn’t come at the expense of human dignity. For every Klown we watch, we need a 21 Jump Street, a film that runs on sweetness as opposed to misanthropy. In a World… doesn’t exist on that plane of unbridled silliness, mind, but that’s fine; the film inhabits its own incredibly down to earth and minimally mean-spirited pocket of cinema, which makes for a refreshingly realistic, thoroughly amusing glance into a rarely explored industry and necessary byproduct of the filmmaking process.
Make that sub-industry. Not to minimize the talents of voiceover titans like Don LaFontaine – the voice of God himself, a very real person who cuts a very significant figure throughout the film’s narrative – but to describe their craft as molecular in the grand orchestra that is movie production and distribution might be generous. That’s entirely the point though; this isn’t a subject we’re given to dwell on or give more than a few seconds of thought to when we’re not watching teaser reels on repeat. As the consumer audience, our relationship to the trade grants Bell an abundance of fertile ground to til for the benefit of In a World…‘s narrative, which entails the struggles of Carol Solomon (Bell), daughter of voiceover legend Sam Soto (Fred Melamed), as she attempts to step out from behind her father’s shadow and make her own name in the biz.
It bears mentioning, of course, that Carol happens to be a little fish in a big, male-dominated pond, and In a World… presents her attempts at supplying vocal work for trailers as transgressive. She’s an interloper in the culture that’s informed the shape of her whole existence, for better or for worse; indeed, many of the film’s male characters treat her sudden rise to recognition as a joke at first, and later on a mystifying threat. A woman? Providing voiceovers for blockbusters? Utterly unheard of, and the notion of a lady uttering the titular phrase – straight out of LaFontaine’s playbook – is nearly treated as rank blasphemy.
Bell picked the right men to portray the boys’ club contingent here, with Ken Marino and Melamed respectively embodying both the direct and casual sexism that suppress upward job mobility for women. To Gustav (Marino), the next big thing in the voiceover hierarchy, Carol’s ambitions are cute; to Sam, they’re respectable but sadly mismatched. In his pontificating fashion, Sam acknowledges the biases at play in his line of work, but he also actively endorses it whether he realizes it or not. To a great degree, In a World… is about watching that patriarchy squirm at the discomfort that comes from a challenge to tradition and to the established order.
Which makes the film sound more grandiose than it actually is. Frankly, Bell’s interests lie less in taking people like Gustav and Sam to the woodshed and more in Carol’s success; she sees Sam as a product of his time and Gustav as, well, Ken Marino, but a very toned-down version of the men Marino typically plays on TV and in movies. They don’t play tropes, they play real people, and that’s part of what makes In a World… so engrossing. If Bell skirts a bit around the ins and outs of voiceover work – the film touches on life in a recording studio and features a climactic vocal training montage that’s hilariously head-on – she doesn’t skimp on her characters, who all feel authentic and robust no matter how big or small a space they occupy in the film’s overarching narrative.
Credit for that goes to Bell’s intimate focus. Ultimately, In a World… is about family as much as it’s about gender revolution in trailer voiceovers; the latter serves as the backdrop, but the latter serves as the anchoring element. Comedy simply serves as the binding for both Bell’s ideas about female empowerment and her fondness for the people articulating those ideas, though that does a mild disservice to her easy, awkward sense of humor. Unlike many of her comic contemporaries, Bell doesn’t want to make her viewers uneasily squirm in their seats; there’s something almost elegant about the way she stages, say, a misfired kiss such that we chuckle because the moment is funny rather than uncomfortable. Rather than punish and perturb her audience, she rewards them with rich laughter.
Maybe that’s why Bell has earned a number of quick comparisons to Woody Allen. (Incidentally, Bell cites Hannah and Her Sisters – in which Melamed appears – as one of her favorite films.) But unlike Allen, Bell belongs behind and in front of the camera. Forget that she’s been active on TV and in movies for a decade and change; think of In a World… as her coming out party, the one project that showcases the full breadth of her talent better than the rest. It’s a film of its moment, a film that holds a spot in contemporary discussions about women in cinema (and arguably in society at large, too), but most of all, it’s the film that will secure Bell’s
place in our cultural consciousness.