Alexandra Holden, bad fathers, celebrity cameos, comedy, Demetri Martin, directorial debut, Don Lafontaine, ensemble cast, Eva Longoria, father-daughter relationships, feminism, Fred Melamed, Geena Davis, In a World..., independent films, indie comedies, infidelity, Jason O'Mara, Ken Marino, Lake Bell, Michaela Watkins, Nick Offerman, Rob Corddry, sexism, Stephanie Allynne, Talulah Riley, Tig Notaro, voice actors, voice coach, voice-over artists, writer-director-actor
Despite this being the tail-end of 2014, there are a lot of things that our species has yet to accomplish: we can send a message from one end of the world to the other in seconds, yet we still have masses of people who starve to death every day…we can send a probe into deep space, yet can’t figure out the basic need for racial equality…anyone, anywhere, now has the opportunity to have their personal thoughts, artwork, opinions and beliefs be seen by a world-wide audience, yet we manage to marginalize women nearly to the point of invisibility. Never before have we been so attuned to the small details, yet so completely ignorant of the big picture…so close to the finish line and yet so very, very far away.
In a World…(2013), the extraordinary feature-length directorial debut of indie writer/actor extraordinaire Lake Bell, probably won’t create any massive kind of sea-change in “the battle of the sexes,” which probably says more about our inherent resistance to common sense than anything else. It’s too bad, really, because In a World…is just the kind of film that could start a bigger dialogue, if given a wide enough audience. A hilarious, sharply written, character-driven comedy that makes its points in the most reasonable way possible and comes to the same conclusion that all of us should have long ago, In a World… politely explains just how fundamentally stupid sexism is and the unfortunate ways in which both men and women keep falling into the same old traps. The solution, as simple as it is, might just shock the world: why not try treating everyone like equals and see what happens?
Carol (Lake Bell) is a voice coach whose main job seems to be helping celebrities like Eva Longoria “not sound like a retarded pirate” for various projects. Voice-work comes naturally to Carol: her father, Sam (Fred Melamed), an impossibly egotistical, massively obnoxious voice-over “superstar,” is about to receive a lifetime achievement award after long being regarded as one of the luminaries in this particular entertainment niche, second only to the legendary Don Lafontaine. The spectre of Lafontaine, who made famous the titular “In a world…” film trailer line so famous, hangs over the cast of characters like a lead weight: he’s the pinnacle that they all aspire to, the ultimate source of envy for jerks like Sam and his protegé, the equally obnoxious Gustav (Ken Merino).
With a new epic film series on the horizon (The Amazon Games, obviously modeled after The Hunger Games), the series’ producers decide that they want an equally epic teaser trailer: for the first time in ages, they decide to use the iconic “In a world…” line and they’re going to need the perfect person to pull it off. Turns out that Carol thinks she’s that person but there’s a hitch: women are completely marginalized as far as cinematic voice-over work goes. Not only don’t any of Carol’s peers, such as Gustav, take her seriously but her own father even disparages her attempts to break into the industry, telling her to stick to her “lowly” voice coaching work. Frustrated, Carol decides to flip off the naysayers and auditions for the trailer…and handily scores the gig! Gustav is furious, unable to handle the news that he lost a plum gig to a woman (even though he doesn’t know it was Carol who “scooped” him) but Sam takes it one step further: he demands to be considered for the gig, even though his daughter has been all-but handed the job already. Since he still pulls weight in the industry, Sam forces the producers to audition the applicants, including Carol and Gustav.
The drama involving the voice-over work is contrasted with a subplot involving Carol’s sister, Dani (Michaela Watkins), her neebishy husband, Moe (Rob Corddry) and the hunky director of The Amazon Games, Terry (Jason O’Mara): they all get thrown into the soup after Carol enlists Dani’s help with some voice-over research (Terry has the dreamiest Irish brogue, dontcha know?) and Dani and Terry end up spending an undue amount of time together. Throw in a romantic triangle involving Carol, Gustav and Carol’s endlessly faithful agent, Louis (Demitri Martin), and you have a recipe for some practically Shakespearian machinations involving love, betrayal, acceptance and the importance of standing up for yourself, regardless of what others think.
As an actor, Lake Bell is known for quirky character performances in indie films like A Good Old Fashioned Orgy (2011) and Black Rock (2012), as well as roles in bigger-budget, mainstream fare like What Happens in Vegas (2008), It’s Complicated (2009) and No Strings Attached (2011). There’s an odd quality to Bell’s performances that marks her as a singularly unique performer: there always seems to be something slightly off about her, something distinctly “out of synch” with whatever she’s appearing in, similar to any of Andy Kaufmann’s various “legit” acting performances. Bell was also part of Rob Corddry’s exceptional Children’s Hospital series, which saw her sharing the small screen with In a World…co-stars Corddry, Ken Marino and Nick Offerman, making her directorial debut a bit of a Children’s Hospital reunion, in a way.
In a World…works on a number of levels: it’s an above-average comedy, thanks to a pretty unbeatable ensemble cast composed almost entirely of comedians (the cast-list reads like a virtual “who’s who” of modern comics); it’s a nicely realized examination of a particularly difficult father-daughter relationship, complete with the requisite “young stepmother” to provide equal comedy grist; it’s a fascinating look into the world of voice-over acting, a subset of the film industry that many casual audiences probably have as little experience with as possible; and last, but certainly not least, it’s a subtle and cutting look at the modern face of sexism and the glass ceilings that still manage to keep women down, despite any number of advances made since the “bad old days.” In a World…manages to be all these things at once, maintaining a delicate balancing act that marks Bell as a formidable talent: much more experienced filmmakers would have dropped at least half of these balls…Bell juggles them with an ease that’s almost supernatural.
One of the most impressive aspects of Lake’s debut is how it’s able to engage on so many levels without ever losing sight of the inherent absurdity of these situations. Carol is exasperated and frustrated by the sexism of her chosen profession but she never gives up or gives in to anger: she plows through, resolutely, determined to prove her worth in the most old-fashioned way possible…by kicking complete ass at the job. For a modern society that prizes innovators and “boot-strap-warriors,” Carol is a bit of a patron saint: she sees something that she wants, ignores the naysayers, busts her ass and goes for it. The whole sexist system is still in place, mind you: the film doesn’t engage in needless feel-good aphorisms any more than it traffics in “revenge fantasies,” ala Horrible Bosses (2011) and its ilk. Rather, Carol’s stubborn refusal to give in and her steadfast desire to be heard makes her something of an Arctic icebreaker, charges ahead despite the endless resistance and pushback she experiences.
Most impressively, In a World…marks Bell’s full-length writing debut: the script is so tight, full of such great dialogue and scenarios that it’s hard to believe she doesn’t have more full-lengths under her belt. I previously called In a World…”Shakespearian” and it’s a comparison I’ll stand by: there’s something about the intricate, brilliant interactions between the various characters that instantly reminiscent of the Bard. By the end, Bell has managed to tie the various threads together in some truly satisfying ways, right up to the fist-raising conclusion that shows how Carol keeps kicking in the door to the boys’ club, finding ways to help women fight the system and find their own voices.
In a World…is that most amazing of constructions, in the end, a “message” film that succeeds as pure entertainment without ever losing sight of the big picture. Bell has lots of things to say here and never hedges her bets but it’s also plainly clear that she wants us to have a good time: there’s no reason that we can’t dance at the revolution, as long as we remember why we’re there. When a film makes you laugh out loud and think, at the same time, well…that’s something pretty special, no two ways about it. Here’s to hoping that In a World…marks the beginning of a brilliant, long directorial career for Bell: the world still has a helluva long way to go but the darkness looks like it’s getting brighter all the time.