When was the last time that you took in a really good romantic comedy at the movies? Can you even think of one that came out in 2013? Frances Ha was funny, and had a romantic subplot of sorts, but at heart it was all about female bonding. Joss Whedon’s Much Ado about Nothing was outstanding, but Shakespeare doesn’t really count as rom/com. Blue Jasmine was more disturbing than comedic.
They say that you don’t miss your water till the well runs dry, and rom/com fans have been going through a long dry spell indeed. So it comes as a fantastic relief – and release of pent-up chortles – to discover In a World…, the producer/director/writer debut of Lake Bell and winner of the Waldo Salt Screenwriting Award at this year’s Sundance Film Festival. Best-known for her long-running lead role as Dr. Cat Black in the Web TV series Childrens Hospital, Bell is also the star of this rib-tickling, incisive send-up of the pretensions of the big fish in the little pond of voiceover acting.
The film hasn’t yet received wide distribution, and its title – not an instant grabber unless you’re as much a fan of movie trailers as of movies themselves – definitely works against it. You’ll “get it” only when you imagine the late real-life voiceover actor known as the “Voice of God,” Don LaFontaine, introducing some bombastic cinema epic with the words “In a world where only the (something) can (something)…” In a World…begins with the premise that LaFontaine has just died, and the Hollywood sharks are circling to take over his role as the king of the voiceovers.
Next in line as patriarch of this nearly exclusively male field is Sam Sotto (Fred Melamed) – a stage name, as in sotto voce – who is contemplating retirement and passing the torch to a younger competitor, Gustav Werner (Ken Marino). Brimming with classic movie-mogul narcissism and machismo, Sam cavalierly dismisses the ambitions of his gifted 30ish daughter Carol Solomon (Bell) to break into voiceover work. Carol is a sought-after vocal coach who teaches people like Eva Longoria (playing herself) how to say “fink” instead of “think” in order to pass as a Cockney. She’s also a late bloomer who still lives in Dad’s house – until he kicks her out to make room for a seemingly empty-headed trophy girlfriend (Alexandra Holden) who’s younger than Carol herself.
Transplanted to the couch in the living room of her sister Dani (Michaela Watkins) and Dani’s husband Moe (Rob Corddry), quirky Carol wanders the streets of Los Angeles surreptitiously collecting accents on her voice recorder for future study – a habit that will later trigger a rift in Dani and Moe’s marriage. And she haunts a recording studio where her sweet-but-nerdy friend Louis (Demetri Martin) operates the soundboard while secretly pining for Carol. There, a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity opens up when the female producer (Geena Davis) of a planned quadrilogy of post-Apocalyptic sci-fi epics called The Amazon Games puts out a call for voiceover actors to revive LaFontaine’s trademark “In a world…” trailer intro. Gustav, afflicted with laryngitis, bails out of his studio appointment and Carol steps into the breach.
The producer likes what she hears. When word gets out that an unspecified woman has the inside track for the coveted gig, Gustav decides to go for the jugular, and even Sam is suddenly motivated to get back into the game. Complications abound, and meanwhile, the funniest, most charmingly awkward courtship on film since Annie Hall and Alvy Singer begins to blossom between Louis and Carol.
In fact, if Annie Hall had been written and directed by Diane Keaton instead of Woody Allen – and if it had been set in LA in the 20-teens instead of New York in the ‘70s – the result might have come out something like In a World…. It’s winsome, but with some sharp edges, and clearly reflects a contemporary female auteur’s sensibility. There are the requisite decadent LA parties, but seen from the women’s point of view, they don’t seem like so much fun the morning after. Sexism in the movie industry, where even fat, hairy, balding old guys feel entitled to their groupies, sits dead-center in Bell’s crosshairs.
But the movie wields its feminist politics with a light, ironic hand. LA women come off nearly as badly as LA men; some of the funniest minor characters in the film are vapid young Valley Girl types who practice the maddening modern practice of “uptalk” – you know, constantly raising the pitch of one’s voice so that the end of every sentence sounds like a question? Helping such women start making “statements” instead is Carol’s true mission. She also applies herself seriously to bonding with her troubled sister; and the power of sisterhood surfaces elsewhere in unexpected ways – sometimes at a price.
If this film doesn’t instantly make Lake Bell a top-shelf Hollywood player, I can’t imagine what will. Her entire stable of actors is well-chosen, and under her deft direction delivers consistent quality performances. The subject matter seems fresh and original; the narrative is complex but moves along smartly and coherently; the dialogue is snappy but feels real, in spite of all the zingers that get tossed around in this subculture full of wiseguys. Carol has a big heart as well as big talent, and Bell endows every secondary character – even the obnoxious Sam – with some annoying traits, some saving graces, at least one Achilles’ heel and a generous supply of funny lines. In a World…is a rewarding, refreshing surprise overall, and hands-down the funniest rom/com to come along this year.