Monday, August 12, 2013

Review: "In a World..."

Director: Lake Bell
Runtime: 93 minutes

We've all heard a trailer that opens with the cheesy grandeur of "in a world..." As said by the late Don LaFontaine, the words became iconic in the world of movie trailers. LaFontaine's voice was deep, rich, and - here's the kicker - completely masculine. But what if those same words were to come out of the mouth of a woman? That's the question at the center of writer/director/star Lake Bell's debut In a World..., a zippy, funny showbiz comedy that is one of the most purely enjoyable releases of the year.

Despite a plot that occasionally dips into sitcom-level subplots, it's easy to see why Bell's screenplay won the Waldo Salt Screenwriting Award back at Sundance. With its limited budget and dialogue-heavy scenes, Bell's film is a marvel of cut-to-the-chase efficiency, without ever forgetting to craft real characters. When we first meet aspiring voice artist Carol (Bell), she's groggy and frizzy-haired, trying to wake up and pull herself together. This may be how Bell first appears to us in front of the camera, but behind-the-scenes this new triple threat is firmly in control of her voice.

Kicking off with a montage dedicated to LaFontaine, In a World...'s story concerns a major gig in the voice over industry: the chance to resurrect LaFontaine's famous phrase for a series of post-apocalyptic action films. Yet even though the films, a mix of Mad Max and The Hunger Games, center on female protagonists, the main candidates to play the authoritative voice of the marketing are all men. Chief among them are the obscenely wealthy and self-absorbed Gustav (Ken Marino), and Carol's own father Sam (Fred Melamed). Then there's Carol, who works as a vocal coach, and is reminded on a daily basis that the trailer industry is meant to be dominated by male voices. 

Yet the simple plot, which predictably builds to a competitive audition for the gig, is smartly spread out to allow room for Bell to build her characters. There's a hint of romance with sound mixer Louis (Demetri Martin), and marital strife involving Carol's sister (Michaela Watkins) and her brother-in-law (Rob Corddry). So many likeminded films completely drop the ball when it comes to subplots that draw attention away from the central narrative. It's a pleasure, then, to see Bell tackle the angles of her story with such snappy conviction. Even the sister subplot, the one with the most room to go horribly wrong, is wrapped up before it becomes too messy. One could argue that Bell's solution is a too tidy, but the characters and performances are drawn well enough to ensure that the resolution doesn't ring false. 

Subplots aside, though, In a World... is really a terrific, unselfish showcase for Bell's talents as a comedic actress and writer. Sexism in the entertainment industry remains a problem, yet Bell gets her point across by being likable, rather than by talking down or wagging her finger. Despite the feminist underpinnings, she's here to tell a story, and a frequently hilarious one at that. The film's point is presented amiably and is open for conversation, even as it's icily underlined via a terrific cameo from Geena Davis as a cutthroat executive. The bluntness of Davis' big scene could have been heavy-handed coming on the heels of such a light story, but everything leading up to it feels authentic and earned.

Only when In a World... tries to move from comedy to romantic comedy does it start to dip in quality. Scenes where actors improv by awkwardly stammering feel like something out of a bad Woody Allen movie. They clash with the more clearly structured exchanges that provide the film with its best moments. In a film that elegantly walks the line between sitcom and reality, the more obvious attempts at creating 'genuine' awkwardness feel at odds with the purposefulness of Bell's writing.

This small quibble aside, it's hard to really have any ill will towards Bell or her film. In a World... is more likely to help her career than be fondly remembered years down the line. Its greatest strength is simply that it allows Bell to humbly take center stage and announce herself as a talent to watch, all while providing some solid laughs. And, even though Bell has room to refine and develop her voice, it doesn't hurt that she's come out of the gate so strongly on her first go round. She can only go up from here, and that's a world that Mr. LaFontaine would be proud to announce. 

Grade: B/B+

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