Let’s take a moment to talk about Lake Bell. You start.
No, seriously, I have no idea who Lake Bell is or how she got to be famous. I had never seen her in anything until Black Rock this year, and I had to walk out of that one halfway through on account of technical failure. Before that movie, her IMDB page is full of such quickly-forgotten mediocrities as A Good Old-Fashioned Orgy, No Strings Attached, It’s Complicated, and Pride and Glory. So far, her most notable onscreen contributions appear to be 14 episodes of “Boston Legal,” some Adult Swim series called “Children’s Hospital” that’s presently in its fifth season, and appearing topless in a two-season HBO show called “How to Make it in America.”
That said, Bell appears to have a much better career in voice-over work. She’s appeared in such high-profile voice gigs as “Robot Chicken,” Shrek Forever After, “Tron: Uprising,” and the video game “Prototype.”
So here’s In A World…, a movie specifically about the voice-over industry, which is quite probably the first feature film to put Lake Bell front and center (the second, if you count Black Rock). Even better, the film also serves as Bell’s writing/directing feature debut. Say what you will about Bell, but she’s clearly got ambition. And if the movie is any indication, she’s got some talent, too.
The movie opens with a brief introduction to one of history’s most prolific voice artists, Don LaFontaine. Known by many as “The Voice of God,” LaFontaine was responsible for untold thousands of commercials and trailers across all manner of media. The film also talks a bit about the eponymous “In A World…” line that’s opened countless film trailers. In case you hadn’t noticed, the line has mostly been retired since 2008 or so. According to the film, that’s because the line was so closely tied to LaFontaine’s legacy that the industry chose to bury it with him when he died five years ago (almost to the day, in fact).
I personally think that the line’s overuse was another factor in its declining popularity, but what do I know?
Anyway, the movie primarily focuses on three voice artists. First and foremost is Bell’s character, name of Carol Solomon. She’s a vocal coach who’s been working for years to break into the voice-over industry. If that sounds hard enough, try thinking back to the last time you heard a female voice-over in a movie trailer, or even a movie commercial. Can’t remember one? That’s the point exactly.
Second is Carol’s father, who goes by the stage name of Sam Sotto (Fred Melamed). Sam is a bona fide legend in the voice-over industry, with a best-selling autobiography and a lifetime achievement award set to be presented in a few short days. However, Sam more or less represents “old Hollywood.” He’s a sexist pig who firmly believes that there’s no place in the industry for a female voice. What’s more, Sam seems afraid that his best days are behind him. He would (and indeed does) throw his own daughter under the bus if it somehow meant stalling the decline of his own career. And all the while, he somehow goes through so many mental gymnastics to spin all of this as tough love.
Then we have Gustav Warner (Ken Marino), a rising star among voice artists. We see very early on that Gustav is Sam’s chosen heir, and Sam outright promises to lobby ad execs so that Gustav will get more lucrative gigs. That’s right, folks: Sam sabotages the career of his own daughter while championing some other guy. Assholes, the both of them.
However, as fate would have it, Gustav comes down with a cold at a critical moment. With his voice temporarily out of commission, some very high-profile jobs go to the runner-up: An unknown named Carol Solomon. With her foot in the door, Carol quickly rises through the ranks until she’s a contender for The Big One.
Hollywood is coming out with a multibillion-dollar quadrilogy called “The Amazon Games,” and getting hired to voice the trailer for it would be huge enough. But for this particular ad campaign, the old “in a world…” line is getting revived (it brings an epic feel that’s been lost in the past few decades, you see). So now, our three voice-over artists aren’t just fighting for the gig of a lifetime, but they’re also competing to walk in the footsteps of Don LaFontaine, quite possibly the greatest commercial voice-over artist of all time.
Now, you might be tempted to scoff at the premise. Competition over voice-acting gigs doesn’t sound like the most interesting or important thing ever, right? Well, the film would argue otherwise. The movie takes pains to remind us that everyone watches movie trailers. What’s more, everyone hears commercial voice-overs. They’re in our televisions, our radios, and on the Internet. Voice-over reaches everyone, which makes it very powerful. Furthermore, because so few commercial voice-overs are done with female voices, it’s just another subtle way in which Hollywood pushes against gender equality.
All of these ideas are very nicely expressed by the film. Then again, I suppose it helps that Geena Davis was the one who got to explain it by way of a strategically-placed cameo role. That woman can still dominate a screen when she feels like it, I must say.
Additionally, the movie has some diabolically sharp barbs for “sexy baby talk,” which is basically the modern equivalent of a “valley girl” accent. It’s a sort of high-pitched and squeaky voice that makes every sentence sound like a question. The effect is such that any woman who talks in a “sexy baby” voice can’t help but sound impossibly stupid (see: Courtney Stodden).
In a clever sort of way, the film’s vendetta against “sexy baby talk” is another type of feminist statement. It shines a light on the type of interchangeable, paper-thin, brainless bimbos who are so often made famous by reality television and the like. The voice seems to come part and parcel with the modern standard of beauty, and the film points out just how stupid that is.
Obviously, the movie works as a Hollywood satire to some degree. But at the same time, it works as a parody. The most obvious example is “The Amazon Games,” which was clearly designed as an exaggerated mash-up of every blockbuster made by Hollywood in the past few years. It’s a book adaptation, it was made as the first part of a series, it’s loaded with special effects, all that stuff. Even better, Bell got Eva Longoria and Cameron Diaz to show up and help make fun of themselves.
By and large, however, the comedy in this movie is deliberately awkward. So much of this screenplay is comprised of characters making themselves and/or others look like fools through dialogue. But at the same time, this sort of humiliation is never mean-spirited. In fact, it’s rather charming. An ideal case in point is Louis (Demetri Martin), a sound producer who serves as Carol’s love interest. The two of them seem to like each other, but they have no idea how to express their feelings or what to do with each other. This is especially true of Louis, who puts his foot in his mouth after every other line. It works superbly, though it helps that the film has the same kind of random and adorkable humor that Martin built his entire career on.
As for Lake Bell, she does a fine job playing her character and serving as the film’s anchor. Then again, I’m not sure how well this reflects on her talents as an actor, since Bell obviously tailored the role to herself. I’ll grant that she seems very comfortable acting and directing at the same time, which is no small feat. I’ll also say that Bell proves herself as a phenomenal voice actor. It was a lot of fun to watch her slip from one voice to another, and it was sort of funny watching her use a tape recorder to collect the accents of total strangers.
Really, the voice-over segments are easily the strongest part of this film. It certainly helps that the movie features appearances by such great voice artists as Melissa Disney, Marc Graue, Joe Cipriano, and Mark Elliott. There’s also Fred Melamed, who has thirty years of experience going behind the mic for various commercials and sports broadcasts. As for Ken Marino, he’s another prolific character actor with plenty of voice-over credits to his name. Needless to say, both of these actors play the rival voice artists with true panache.
However, the movie has one very painful Achilles’ heel: The Dani/Moe storyline. See, Carol is forced by her dad to move out so that he can live with his new twenty-something girlfriend (yes, you read that right). So Carol moves in with her sister (Dani, played by former Portlander Michaela Watkins) and brother-in-law (Moe, played by Rob Corddry). Unfortunately, Carol moves in at a time when Dani’s marriage is on the rocks, and there’s this whole subplot about the marriage falling apart.
Corddry and Watkins both play their parts well enough, but everything else about this subplot completely fails. Not only is it terribly constructed, with characters and story threads that go nowhere, but it has absolutely zero relevance to Carol’s story. The filmmakers tried so many times to tie the subplot in with the main story, and none of them worked. In fact, there are times when the film showed Carol in the middle of some important sequence, only to constantly interrupt it with Moe’s inconsequential moping. In this way, the subplot actually hurt the movie.
I had a hard time figuring out why this subplot was included at all, until I learned that Bell and Corddry are both in the cast of “Children’s Hospital.” If Bell really wanted to put Corddry in her movie that badly, she should have given him Nick Offerman’s role. Don’t get me wrong, it’s always great to see Offerman onscreen and he does a good enough job with his tiny little role. Even so, it’s nothing that Corddry couldn’t have done just as well, if not better.
All told, I really enjoyed In A World… It’s charming, sweet, funny, well-performed, and provides some very novel satire about the film industry. It’s a remarkable writing/directing debut for Lake Bell, hindered only by that worthless marital infidelity subplot. The voice-work in itself makes this film worth an easy recommendation. Keep an eye out for this one and give it a shot.